Timeless (time) signatures

Multifaceted composer/jazz pianist Dave Brubeck marches on

Dave Brubeck is among the most prolific recording artists and composers of the past century. He's released more than 140 recordings as a solo artist, as part of a jazz quartet, with symphony orchestras and with choral groups. He's known as a jazzman but has composed extensively in sacred music forms. At 83, he's still touring the world. The man is music personified.

Three new CD releases exemplify the breadth and impact of Brubeck's contributions as an artist and composer, as well as his sheer longevity as a creative force in American popular culture.

The five-CD Columbia/Legacy box set For All Time collects the Dave Brubeck Quartet's groundbreaking experiments in atypical time signatures, or musical rhythms. It was the fulfillment of a quest Brubeck outlined as early as 1951, but the fun began after the quartet returned from extensive touring in Europe and the Middle East in 1958. Freshly inspired by the rhythms of Turkish street musicians and the lyricism of German and Polish classical composers, Brubeck endeavored to liberate jazz from the constraints of 4/4 time. The result was the million-selling Time Out (1959), a recording so unorthodox that Columbia initially refused to release it. It featured the now ubiquitous "Take Five," penned in 5/4 time by alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, and the brilliant 9/8 romp "Blue Rondo a la Turk."

The follow-up, Time Further Out (1961), is fully equal to its predecessor. To hear "Bluette," for example, is to hear Frederic Chopin playing American blues, set to a 3/4 jazz waltz. Meanwhile, "Maori Blues" jumps to a tribal 6/4 beat Brubeck first heard in New Zealand.

Both Time Out and Time Further Out were reissued on CD in 1997. The other discs in the For All Time set — Countdown: Time in Outer Space (1962), Time Changes (1964) and Time In (1966) — were previously unissued on CD in the States, mired in the backlog of decades of vintage Columbia jazz. Of these, Time In is the gem, featuring compelling compositions ("40 Days," "Cassandra") and free-spirited, joyful single-note piano soloing; Time Changes is notable for "Elementals," a 16-minute quartet-and-orchestra piece that foreshadowed later Brubeck works.

The glorious material clearly is worthy of box-set treatment. Brubeck not only introduced standards for now, he raised standards. One caveat, however, is that most Brubeck fans already own Time Out and Time Further Out, and likely would prefer that Columbia/Legacy release the other three CDs individually.

Meanwhile, Telarc Records' Private Brubeck Remembers features Brubeck's solo piano recordings of songs that date from World War II, when Brubeck was an Army bandleader performing at the front lines (and occasionally behind them). There's a sweet sentimentality to this collection, which includes such ballads as "For All We Know" (no, not the Carpenters tune) and Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To."

The release features a 16-page memoir of Brubeck's war experiences and a "limited edition" bonus CD (included with the first 40,000 copies only) in which Walter Cronkite interviews Brubeck. The interview disc is invaluable for serious Brubeck fans because the pianist and Cronkite, himself a WWII correspondent, share specific memories of that era. Collectively, the release marks the first time Brubeck's WWII exploits have been thoroughly documented.

Brubeck also has written and recorded extensively in religious formats, including the Roman Catholic mass, To Hope! A Celebration (1996). The most recent product from this milieu is Brubeck in Chattanooga (available at www.choralartsofchattanooga.org), recorded with Choral Arts of Chattanooga under the direction of Philip Rice. The material is largely a cappella choral work. Brubeck performs on six of the eight selections. The emphasis is on Brubeck as composer, not pianist, although he does solo extensively on "Yes, We All Have Our Cross to Bear: Swing Version."

Brubeck in Chattanooga is not a likely choice for mainstream tastes, but it represents a facet of Brubeck's work that is uniquely important to him. It's another example of Brubeck's passion, fueled no doubt by his belief that music is the definitive vehicle for emotional expression, transcending generations, musical genres and geographic and cultural borders. A medium worthy of a lifetime of a man's best effort. Timeless, indeed.


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