At almost age 90, pianist Dave Brubeck no longer bounds up the stairs. He needs to lever himself up from the piano by leaning on the keyboard. His fingers are gnarled.
And yet once he sits down and starts to play, the old magic comes back, if a bit weaker than before. And it certainly enthralled a near-capacity audience (about 10,500) in Confederation Park on Saturday, July 3.
Brubeck brought his quartet (Bobby Militello on alto sax, Michael Moore on bass, and Randy Jones on drums) to the Ottawa Jazz Festival for a concert in conjunction with the NAC Orchestra. The Orchestra essentially became a big band behind the quartet, an arrangement which mostly worked well. It certainly wasn't for lack of enthusiasm or skill by the orchestra musicians, several of whom have played straight jazz in the Impressions in Jazz Orchestra.
Brubeck wisely husbanded his strength in the concert, letting concert-master Russell Gloyd conduct the orchestra and provide the between-song patter, explaining the background of each piece. Brubeck didn't talk at all, confining himself to briefly waving to the audience at the end, and energetic piano playing.
In 1999, I heard Brubeck at the Montreal Jazz Festival, playing with the big band Diva. In that concert, he was premiering new pieces, talking about his recent adventures, and actively improvising and creating new rhythms and ideas. But his concert at the 2007 Ottawa Jazz Festival – and to an even greater extent this year – were primarily a celebration of the past, of what Brubeck has created, as opposed to looking forward.
But, for a man who has done so much, both technically in expanding the possibilities of jazz rhythms, and in terms of bringing American jazz to the world, this is a legacy to celebrate.
The orchestra and the quartet melded particularly well in "The Basie Band is Back in Town", a rip-roaring tribute to Count Basie, and the finale, "Take the A-Train". The also added a rousing fanfare at the end of "Theme for June" (by Brubeck's brother, Howard), which was primarily a lovely solo piano piece by Brubeck, evocative of loves lost, and showing him still fully capable of great playing. But in other tunes – in fact some of the highlights of the show like "In Your Own Sweet Way" – the strings were simply a background enhancement to the piano, sax, and bass solos.
Other highlights included the deceptively simple "Unsquare Dance", in a 7/4 time which somehow didn't seem hurried, and with an earthy bass solo, and a blistering fast "London Sharp, London Flat".
The weakest pieces in the show were the best known: "Blue Rondo a la Turk", and "Take Five". The orchestra's playing underneath Militello's sax line in the latter detracted from it rather than enhancing it. And, despite Militello's best efforts to energize his solos, there just wasn't a lot more to say. Unfortunately, the audience seemed to demand those pieces: one listener asked OJS publisher Brett Delmage, two songs into the show: "Has he played Take Five yet?"
It was a good concert, one that entertained and mostly showed off the strengths of the musicians. If it wasn't quite up to my memories, I'm still glad to see that Brubeck can play well, and – based on his big grin at the end – share a great time doing it.
– Alayne McGregor