Dave Brubeck’s early music might not always measure up to his later work, but if the Concord Music compilation The Very Best of Dave Brubeck: The Fantasy Era 1949-1953 is any indication, early Brubeck had a whole lot going for it. Featuring 15 songs—14 standards and one Brubeck original—culled from eight different Fantasy albums, these are indeed some of the very best examples of his work from the period before Jazz Goes to College. They are a clear indication of the greatness that was to come, but perhaps more importantly they are magical in their own right.
The album begins with four tracks from Brubeck’s trio originally released as The Dave Brubeck Trio: Distinctive Rhythm Instrumentals. Ron Crotty plays bass and Cal Tjader, best known later as a vibraphonist, is on drums. None much over three minutes in length, the four songs—”Blue Moon,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and “Body and Soul”—foreshadow the richness and complexity of Brubeck’s musical ideas. Of the four, “Body and Soul” with Tjader working the bongos is something special. “My Heart Stood Still,” the third Rogers and Hart composition on the album, is a solo piano piece. Its pounding chords and rhythmic changes are vintage Brubeck.
The rest of the album is devoted to sampling the pianist’s work with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond in the justly celebrated Dave Brubeck Quartet. These were two musicians meant to work together. There are live performances of “For All We Know,” “Give a Little Whistle,” “This Can’t Be Love,” and a really interesting take on the Hoagy Carmichael classic, “Stardust.” Filled with quotations and musical allusions, it is a dynamically inventive collaboration.
Studio tracks include a whimsical if short version of “Me and My Shadow” and a swinging if short version of “Frenesi.” Neil Tesser’s liner notes make the point that the short length of nearly all of the tracks on the album was necessitated by the limitations of what could be recorded on 78 vinyl back in the day. Luckily for us, while quantity is nice, quality is what counts, and quality is what you get in all of these tracks. Brubeck’s own “Lyons Busy,” a song inspired by a local San Francisco disc jockey, Jimmy Lyons, who aired the band on his radio show, “Just One of Those Things” and “A Foggy Day” round out the album.
For those of us who wore out these albums when they were originally released, The Very Best of Dave Brubeck is like welcoming an old friend. For those who weren’t around, it is an opportunity to hear some of the finest work of a day gone by, indeed some of the finest work of any day.