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The Montreal Jazz Festival pays an upbeat tribute to Dave Brubeck (review)

The Brubeck Brothers Quartet, led by Chris Brubeck (bass) and Dan Brubeck (drums), was very familiar with Dave Brubeck's music, but performed it in a fresh, conversational manner. ©Brett Delmage, 2013

The Brubeck Brothers Quartet Tribute to Dave Brubeck
Théâtre Jean-Duceppe, Place des Arts
Montreal Jazz Festival
Sunday, July 7, 2013 – 9:30 p.m.

View photos of this concert

The late Dave Brubeck was always special to the Montreal Jazz Festival, and founder Alain Simard recognized that at the closing concert of the 2013 festival.

Before the concert started, Simard walked on-stage to pay tribute to the pianist and composer: “un grand ami du festival”, who even sent him Christmas cards. Brubeck performed 13 times at the festival, starting in 1981, with everything from his trio to a big band to symphony orchestras. His last appearance was in 2011.

This tribute featured two of Brubeck's four musician sons: Chris on electric bass and trombone, and Dan on drums, plus their regular collaborators Mike DeMicco on guitar, and Chuck Lamb on keyboards. This was particularly fitting because Dave Brubeck often included one or more of his sons in his performances starting in the 1960s. In fact, at Brubeck's very first Montreal jazz festival concert in 1981, Chris played trombone in his quartet.

But the tribute also included three stellar Montreal jazz musicians: Chet Doxas on saxophone, Adrian Vedady on double bass, and notably Lorraine Desmarais on piano, who played in the big band Diva in their two festival concerts with Brubeck in 1999. Adding those three to the Montreal concert was an inspired choice: their musicianship, enthusiasm, and new approaches enlivened and enhanced the concert.

While there were several songs which simply could not be left out of such a tribute concert, the set list was diverse, reflecting Dave Brubeck's wide range as a composer and arranger. Several I didn't remember hearing before: for example, the opening number, “Bossa Nova U.S.A.”, from a 1963 Brazilian-themed album, which was a bright, fluid introduction to the concert.

Throughout, Chris Brubeck introduced the songs with stories about how his father wrote them or came to choose them. I particularly liked the story behind “Blues for Newport”: Dave Brubeck was playing the Newport Jazz Festival with Gerry Mulligan, and record producers Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun was taping the show for an all-star recording. They asked Brubeck if he had any new material for the record. “My dad said, 'No actually, I don't. How long till we go on? And then, in about three minutes, he wrote this tune”. It was a deceptively simple number, opening fast guitar and bass riffs, and with Chris scatting to the melody partway through.

Dave Brubeck had a tradition of naming songs after members of his family, and the group played two of these. "Kathy's Waltz" was a gently swinging number, in honour of Brubeck's daughter Cathy and her dreams of becoming a ballet dancer at age 5, while “Iola” was a delicate ballad written for his wife.

“Jazzanians” was inspired by another son, Darius Brubeck. Dave Brubeck wrote this piece to celebrate Darius' work with multi-racial jazz organizations in South Africa, and it had noticeable blues and worldbeat influences: “not what you usually associate with my Dad.” It featured DeMicco's bluesy, flowing guitar and Dan's hard-hitting, slightly interrupted drumming.

I heard Dave Brubeck live a number of times over the years in Montreal and Ottawa. While he would play his hits, it was notable how he would rearrange and almost disguise them with new introductions. The concert continued this tradition: for example, “Someday My Prince Will Come” (a solo piano piece by Lamb) was introduced by muted hammering on piano keys, until the fairy-like melody overcame the percussion and finally resolved itself into the melody.

In another family story, Chris noted afterwards that he and Dan were semi-responsible for that song becoming a jazz standard, because they kept playing Disney tunes on their little record players when their father was trying to sleep after coming home at 3 a.m. from performing at clubs. “It was subconsciously infecting him ... so he did this record called Dave Digs Disney.” The album became a bestseller, partially because it was a monthly selection of the Columbia Record Club.

Mid-way through the concert, Montrealers Lorraine Desmarais and Chet Doxas joined the quartet. Desmarais introduced “Iola” with a moving piano solo which evolved from gossamer to full-bodied. A few minutes later, Doxas blended in the melody on soprano sax. Supported by bass and drums, they played a sensitive duet which communicated the romance behind the song.

That was followed by another song also dedicated to Iola, for which she later wrote lyrics: “In Your Own Sweet Way”. Doxas took the initial lead on tenor, and then was joined by Chris on trombone. They then alternated, supported by DeMicco's guitar and with Adrian Vedady's double bass and Lamb's piano filling in behind them. It turned into an extended vamp full of intense playing, with each musician having a chance to solo, and received strong applause at the end.

At a not-so-great jazz festival in Atlantic City in the 1950s, Dave Brubeck had a late-night meal with Ella Fitzgerald, and noticed she looked blue. He asked her how she was doing, and she told him her one bad habit was falling in love. Brubeck's reaction: “is that a title for a song!” and he and Iola wrote the song shortly thereafter. Ella never ended up recording it, but Carmen McRae did. The quartet, along with Vedady, gave “My One Bad Habit” a light ballad treatment, the melody rippling off the guitar and piano, and with the lyrics sung by Chris' trombone.

Then came an extended drum solo from Dan, starting at medium tempo, with the remainder of the quartet coming in a strong groove. When it resolved, you heard Paul Desmond's “Take Five”, with DeMicco's guitar replacing Desmond's alto sax and keeping the same smooth yet expressive articulation. Clearly, this was a song the whole group was going to have fun with: another extensive drum solo, Lamb switching between piano and Yamaha CP5 and including a quick quote from “My Favorite Things”, swinging guitar and bass, and an overall celebration of that song and how it could be improvised upon. The audience loved it, responding with strong applause and then a standing ovation.

The Montreal musicians rejoined the quartet for the last song of the night, “Blue Rondo a la Turk”, played with a bluesy edge, but also with many changes in direction and dynamics. With both electric and acoustic bass, the music had a strongly-outlined beat and lots of energy. Desmarais started on the CP5 and Lamb on the piano, and partway through they switched, with her performing a pirouette. She stood as she played her piano solo: fast, bright and sunny, ending with a glissando. Everyone finally came together for the last few bars, before ending with a flourish, and prompting another standing ovation.

Near the beginning of the concert, Chris had told the audience, “You're here because, I think, you probably like to hear melodies”. And that's what they got, along with swinging, mainstream jazz instrumentals, and a approach to the music that was both playful and respectful. The musicians were clearly very familiar with the material (the quartet has recorded many of the pieces on their albums), but performed it in a fresh, conversational manner. I was particularly impressed with DeMicco, whose flexible guitar enhanced many of the songs.

But a good bit of the credit has to go to Dave Brubeck, who wrote and arranged so many memorable songs, and taught his sons how to touch audiences with them. I'd like to hear Chris and Dan Brubeck play more of their own music, but this concert needed to be a tribute to Dave, and they did a fine job of it.

Set list

  1. Bossa Nova U.S.A.
  2. Kathy's Waltz
  3. Blues for Newport
  4. Some Day My Prince Will Come (Larry Morey & Frank Churchill) / Strange Meadowlark
  5. Jazzanians
  6. Iola
  7. In Your Own Sweet Way
  8. My One Bad Habit is Falling in Love
  9. Take Five (Paul Desmond)
  10. Blue Rondo a la Turk

    – Alayne McGregor

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All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2013
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