The Dave Brubeck Quartet: “The Golden Horn” (Jazz Impressions of Eurasia, 1958)
Yesterday, we lost Dave Brubeck, a day shy of his 92nd birthday. Pitchfork’s obituary headline today refers to him as a “jazz titan,” which is perfectly apt. The man’s influence was huge, and he made a few of my very favorite albums with his excellent quartet from the late 50s into the early 60s.
The thing that triggered that run of greatness was a world tour organized by the State Department in 1958. The classic quintet lineup of Brubeck on piano, Paul Desmond on sax, Eugene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums was cemented on this tour, and the music they heard as they traversed Asia and Europe deeply affected the band’s music.
Brubeck and Desmond began to build their compositions in a wide variety of unusual time signatures, and they expanded their harmonic concepts, already indebted to modernism and neo-classical music, to reference the music of other parts of the world.
Brubeck’s open-armed embrace of music that challenged his existing notions and constant desire to push the boundaries of his own music are two of the things that most endear me to him. He was among the first jazz musicians whose music I warmed to, in part because the transition from progressive rock to his odd time signatures and complex harmonic ideas was a fairly smooth one. My love of Brubeck’s music helped kick down the door to a broader love of jazz. I owe him for that.
The run of albums that sprang from Brubeck and his band’s overseas awakening is among my favorite bodies of work by anyone: Jazz Impressions of Eurasia, Time Out, Time Further Out, Countdown—Time in Outer Space, Time Changes, Jazz Impressions of Japan, and Time In are all wonderful records. His piano style on these records is distinctive and spry, and his penchant for patterns dovetails with his rhythmic experimentation to lend the music exquisite math.
Brubeck impressed me as a person, too. He was embarrassed when TIME put him on the cover in 1954, because he thought it should have been Duke Ellington instead (he understood racial politics humbly enough to recognize, even at the time, the likely reasons TIME had favored him for the cover). He managed a feat rare for jazz musicians when he landed “Take Five” (a Paul Desmond composition) in the Top 40, and his music’s accessibility made him enduringly popular, but I’ve read interviews with the guy from near the end of his life, and it didn’t seem to go to his head. He was still kind of taking it all in, in the way he did.
I know who I’ll be listening to all day.