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The Dave Brubeck Quartet, photo by Michael Ochs, ca. 1955. © Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives: Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck plays piano with his group the Dave Brubeck Quartet which included Paul Desmond on saxophone and Ron Crotty on bass, ca. 1955. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images. © Getty Images.

Dave Brubeck, a pianist and composer whose distinctive mixture of experimentation and accessibility made him one of the most popular jazz musicians of the 1950s and ’60s, died Wednesday morning in Norwalk, Conn. He would have turned 92 on Thursday. […]

In a long and successful career, Mr. Brubeck helped repopularize jazz at a time when younger listeners had been trained to the sonic dimensions of the three-minute pop single. His quartet’s 1959 recording of “Take Five” was the first jazz single to sell a million copies. (The New York Times: “Dave Brubeck, Who Helped Put Jazz Back in Vogue, Dies at 91” by Ben Ratliff, December 5, 2012)

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Artwork by American graphic designer Neil S. Fujita for the album ‘Time Out’ (1959) by The Dave Brubeck Quartet © Columbia Records

I bet the album Time Out played in quite a few headphones and speakers today. It did in mines. The artwork for the vinyl sleeve ―seen above― was designed by American graphic designer S. Neil Fujita. Fujita is known, among other things, as the designer of the iconic typeface of The Godfather which was used both on the jacket of the book and on the movie poster (see previously: American Graphic Designer S. Neil Fujita Dies (1921-2010)). The reproduction used here was retrieved from Discogs.

At the very end of this post, I’ve embedded a video of The Dave Brubeck Quartet performing “Take Five” in front of a live audience in Germany, in 1966. “Take Five” is probably one of the most recognizable jazz composition ever recorded. A few quotes from different sources makes it easier to appreciate a couple of things about this musical piece; namely, the singular nature of its time signature, just who was involved in its composition (three of the band members) and its overall value in regard to the history of jazz.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet: pianist Dave BRUBECK, Paul DESMOND, Eugene WRIGHT and Joe MORELLO. Photo by Dennis Stock, Idlewild Airport, New York 1958. © Magnum Photos

First, Fred Kaplan tells the story of the “oriental” influence which gave the whole album its innovative and unique rhythm:

Walking around Istanbul one morning [while on tour], Brubeck heard a group of street musicians playing an exotic rhythm, fast and syncopated. It was in 9/8 time―nine eight notes per measure―a very unusual meter in Western music, and the players phrased the notes in still more jarring way: not 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, as might be expected, but 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3. […]

All during the 1958 tour, Brubeck heard odd meters and raga rhythms from local musicians, and when his quartet played with them, they were all astonished that his drummer, Joe Morello, could match these rhythms precisely.

When Brubeck got back to the United States, he was inspired to make an album that would break out the standard 4/4 time that marked almost all jazz tunes, no matter how adventurous they might otherwise be. And he especially wanted to write something based on the 9/8 folk tune he’s heard in Istanbul.

[…] Columbia’s executives were loath to underwrite an album that consisted entirely of original music composed in weird meters. They finally agreed, but only if Brubeck first recorded an album of traditional songs from the South […]

Two month later, having fulfilled his side of the bargain, Brubeck and the quartet flew to New York and―over three sessions, on June 25, July 1, and August 18―made the album that he’d wanted to make. It was called Time Out, and it would become, after Kind of Blue, one of the biggest-selling jazz albums ever. (1959: The Year Everything Changed by Fred Kaplan, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2009, pp. 130-132)

The 9/8 time would later be used by Brubeck to compose “Blue Rondo à la Turk” which was also included on the album Time Out. Kaplan’s anecdote comes from an interview he did with Dave Brubeck while researching his book. See the commemorative post he wrote today for Stereophile: “Dave Brubeck, R.I.P.” Dec. 5, 2012; see also the official website for his book.

In another book published in 1996 –It’s About Time: The Dave Brubeck Story by Fred M. Hall– we find another first account both by Dave Brubeck and Joe Morello of just how “Take Five” was composed. As it turns out, it really was a team effort:

In the entire history of the Classic Brubeck Quartet, the most important recording session was that of July 1, 1959.

Dozens of singles had been released by Fantasy and Columbia, both in 78 rpm and, later, un 45 rpm formats, but Dave had never had a hit. A hit, in fact, was an unheard-of concept for contemporary jazz group. Time Out produced “Take Five,” and “Take Five” took off like the Boeing 707, which made its commercial debut that year. Each selection in the album had a different time signature. It was 5/4 for “Take Five”. Dave says, “We credit Paul Desmond as composer. But I know the whole story, and I’d have to credit Joe Morello with coming up with that beat. I used to say to Paul, ‘Why don’t you put a melody to this rhythm Joe is playing?’ So they’d mess around backstage. And I’d say, ‘Now write something, Paul, that goes with it.’ So he came in with some themes, but he didn’t have a completed composition. I put two of Paul’s themes together, so we gave the composition credit to him. But when people want to know the full story, they should talk to joe. Because Joe said ‘Take Five’ was basically his 5/4 beat. And I have to agree with him.”

According to Morello, it all stemmed from his being bored with 4/4 during his solos. He says he started doing 5/4 just for fun. “Even after ‘Take Five’ was recorded,” Joe says, “nobody expected it to be successful. It was written just to close a show with a drum solo. That’s all it was. It was a good vehicle for me because I was very comfortable in that time signature.” Now of course, Dave can’t do a concert without including that piece. (It’s About Time: The Dave Brubeck Story by Fred M. Hall, University of Arkansas Press, 1996, pp. 62-63)

Finally, Chris Smith provides a few words about how the album was received both by professional critics and by general audiences:

Although very complex and cerebral, and despite the unusual time signature, Time Out never loses this ability to swing, making it all the more an extraordinary achievement. Critics were initially hesitant to appreciate Brubeck and Desmond’s ingenuity, feeling they had violated the rhythmic underpinning that made jazz what it was. But Time Out was a surprisingly popular success, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard charts, something wholly unexpected from an avant-garde jazz album. The album remained on the charts for more than three years, buyoed by the hit “Take Five,” and has gone to become one of the best-selling jazz albums in history. (101 Albums That Changed Popular Music: A Reference Guide by Chris Smith, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 15)

For more, see also Steve Huey entry for Time Out in All Music Guide to Jazz (ed by Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra and Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Backbeat Books, 4th edition, 2002, p. 169)

Below is a film recording of The Dave Brubeck Quartet performing “Take Five” in front of a live audience (Germany, 1966). It’s the same version as this recording (uploaded by YouTube user Astrotype on May 24, 2007), but with a slightly better resolution. It was uploaded on YouTube by user TheDathi on December 22, 2010.

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Previously: all posts tagged “jazz”.

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