Is there a musical instrument that you just can’t get your head around to appreciate? No matter how good someone is supposed to be, no matter how amazing a piece of music, it doesn’t matter because the instrument being played just doesn’t appeal to you, or even worse, make any sense, to you. Well for me that instrument has always been the piano.
Yes that’s right the piano, from the time I was a kid it’s done almost nothing for me. I look at those eighty-eight keys and I can’t even begin to comprehend anything about it. Everybody else I know, even those who’ve never played piano in their lives, can sit down at a keyboard and soon be picking out something that sounds like music. I don’t even know where to start.
Part of that comes from the fact that the only musical instrument I ever received any formal training on was the cello, and the other part is that I’m hopeless when it comes to recreating a sound that I hear. A musical scale means absolutely nothing to me, and to randomly arrange notes into a pattern that constitutes something musical, like it appears people do on a piano, is a skill so beyond my comprehension you might as well ask me to build a rocket ship.
Therefore, it takes somebody of quite extraordinary talent playing the piano for me to be able to appreciate what is being performed. Up to this point only classical pianist Glen Gould has managed to break through the fog that surrounds my brain when it comes to performances on the keyboard. Finally, after many fruitless years of listening, I can add a second player to the list: Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck.
Dave Brubeck Live In ’64 & ’65 is part of a series of concert discs called Jazz Icons that’s been put together by Reelin’ In The Years, featuring live performances from some of the greatest names in Jazz. I hoped that because this disc featured Brubeck in concert with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, that I’d have a better chance of appreciating his piano work as part of the group then if he was playing solo.
I can tell you this, for the first time that I can remember since seeing a tape of Gould playing, I was blown away by a piano player. Not only because of one or two hot licks like Jerry Lee Lewis can astound you with, but because of the over all performance. At first the Quartet sounded like it wasn’t doing anything that memorable, playing what I would consider fairly mainstream Jazz, yet the more I listened the more there was to hear.
What is so amazing about both of the concerts on these discs — the 1964 one from Belgium in a television studio, and the one two years later before a live audience in Germany — is how deceptively simple the music appeared to be. It was only when I started to pay attention to the interplay between Paul Desmond on Alto Saxophone and Dave on the piano that I realized how intricate the music was.
Now I’m not musically literate enough to give you the proper terminology for what they were doing. But periodically, without any warning, the tempo of a piece would alter ever so slightly. I would think the lead on this came from Brubeck on piano, but it was always so subtle that there was no way you could tell for sure who started it.
One moment a song would be progressing along almost casually, like they were out for a stroll, and the next moment, the number of notes being played would increase. The pace didn’t actually speed up, it would only appear to because they were playing that many more notes in the same amount of time. It would be the equivalent of a song jumping from a waltz tempo, three notes per bar, to something faster, like playing five or six notes per bar.
Not only did this give the impression of the songs speed increasing, it added another layer of texture to the music. As a means of creating variations on themes, this is brilliant, while easy for a listener to keep up with. You probably aren’t able to accomplish something like this with the ease the Quartet does without years of playing together behind you, or without a rhythm section you can trust implicitly.
These four men had been playing together for a number of years already, doing around one hundred gigs a year, so familiarity wasn’t a problem. But neither was complacency, as every night they would try to play each song differently enough to make it a challenge. Drummer Joe Morello and bassist Eugene Wright, charged with keeping the train on the tracks, don’t seem to be phased the least during these performances. In fact, whenever the camera catches them they seem to be exchanging secret little smiles behind the backs of the two leads, as if saying, “nice try guys, but you can’t fool us”.
Aside from the fact that the footage and the sound quality on this DVD are both quite wonderful, what’s great about Live In ’64 & ’65 is the wonderful booklet that’s included. Not only does it give you the history behind the two concerts themselves, it also goes into detail about the history of the band, it’s musical styles, and influences.
Each song is given a careful analysis so you have a good idea of what to listen for while watching, and that makes it twice as pleasurable. In fact, it was probably the major reason why I was able to appreciate the piano playing of Dave Bruebeck as much as I did. When you understand what it is you are listening to, it is far easier to enjoy it.
If Dave Brubeck Live In ’64 & ’65 is an indication of the quality of the Jazz Icons series, than it’s probably worth owning the discs that feature your favorite players. Or, perhaps even more importantly, the discs that feature the guys who you may not have figured out yet; if it helped me appreciate piano playing – think what it can do for you.