It wouldn’t surprise me if you’d never heard, or even heard of, Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein. It isn’t in any of the guides to recommended jazz recordings that I’ve read, and I don’t remember seeing any mention of it in the many excellent obituaries that appeared when Dave Brubeck died, aged 91, last December. Even in an era when his contribution has been handsomely reassessed, it remains a bit of a black sheep in his discography.
Yet it’s always been a record of which I’ve been extremely fond, and it’s a pleasure for me that it has finally made what I believe to be its first appearance on CD (** I’m wrong: see correction below). Even now, however, despite featuring two of Columbia Records’ biggest names of the early 1960s, it has been refused the seal of approval that a release on Sony Legacy represents, and has been shuffled intead down to the budget Hallmark label, which means that although the repackagers have used the original front cover design, today’s buyer isn’t deemed worthy of the sleeve information that came with the original 12-inch LP release.
No matter. The relevant details are to hand. The first side of the album consists of Howard Brubeck’s four-part Dialogues for Jazz Combo and Orchestra, first performed by the New York Philharmonic and the Dave Brubeck Quartet under the baton of Leonard Bernstein at Carnegie Hall in December 1959 — the month that Brubeck’s Time Out, containing “Take Five”, was released — and recorded the following January 30 at one of Columbia’s two New York studios, probably the deconsecrated Armenian Church on East 30th Street. The second side presents four of Bernstein’s Broadway theatre songs, three of them from West Side Story, recorded a fortnight later by the quartet alone: the classic line-up of Brubeck (piano), Paul Desmond (alto saxophone), Gene Wright (bass) and Joe Morello (drums).
Howard Brubeck was Dave’s older brother, preceding his sibling as a student of the French composer Darius Milhaud at Mills College, a liberal arts institution in the Bay Area (its alumni include Terry Riley, Phil Lesh and Steve Reich). He became Milhaud’s assistant, taught composition at San Diego State College and ended his career as dean of humanities at Palomar Junior College in San Marcos, California. Dialogues appears to be his only recorded composition.
The four movements are titled Allegro, Andante (Ballad), Adagio (Ballad) and Allegro (Blues). Inevitably, the critics of the day assumed that the two Brubecks and their superstar conductor were putting a toe into the waters of the Third Stream, the late-’50s movement created by the musicologist-composer Gunther Schuller, who wanted to find ways of combining jazz with classical music. Most of them criticised it for an absence of obvious musical ambition: what Howard Brubeck did was not to fuse the two forms in an attempt to discover a third, but simply juxtapose them. So for most of the time rather portentous orchestral passages reminiscent of Aaron Copland — stentorian brass, perky woodwind — are succeeded by bits that sound like conventional 1950s jazz-with-strings.
I don’t mind that at all, because the material always feels like it has substance and the players sound as though they’re having fun. I bought it on its release in 1961 and I’ve probably listened to the orchestral piece no more than two or three times in the last 40 years, but I found that I remembered every note. It isn’t profound, but it’s unfailingly intelligent and creative, and sometimes genuinely exciting, and it calls on the full resources of Brubeck and his musicians. Andante (Ballad) has a tune as pretty as brother Dave’s classic “In Your Own Sweet Way”, giving Morello a chance to demonstrate his immaculate brush-work, while Wright sounds pretty much the equal of more highly rated bass-players of the era. Adagio (Ballad) moves from an astringent passage for strings into full-blown romanticism behind Desmond, and the closing movement — although the mention of the blues in the title is a little misleading — finds the quartet achieving a genuine interaction with the orchestra as the intensity builds from a delicious conversation for trumpet and bassoon through angular string figures towards a beautiful moment when the orchestra detonates Desmond into the first of two short but very fine solos over the rhythm section at its swinging best. The closing ensemble climax is prefaced by a 32-bar solo which shows what an unassumingly adventurous pianist Brubeck could be. (It reminded me of a lovely self-deprecatory story he once told about bumping into the avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor, who told him how much he admired his playing and proclaimed that he saw him as the missing link. “He didn’t say between what and what,” Brubeck said.)
What a pity whoever remastered the recording saw fit to cut off the final chord, leaving no hint of natural reverb — particularly since Columbia’s 30th Street studio was renowned for its inherent properties in that respect. But I suppose that’s what happens when you bang something out on a budget label and flog it for less than a fiver.
Did I say something about the quartet swinging? But isn’t what they were supposed not to do? What rubbish. I saw them at the De Montfort Hall in Leicester during their UK tour in 1962, at the height of their popular success. It was my first direct exposure to American jazz musicians, and they proved that no group including Wright and Morello could fail to swing like the clappers on demand, whatever the material or the environment. And that’s what we find on the tracks minus the orchestra, where their playing is unfailingly excellent, particularly on a luminous version of “Maria”, where — if I’ve got it right — Desmond plays the theme in 4/4 while the rhythm section are playing in three. It’s the sort of rhythmic game for which they became famous with “Take Five”, “Unsquare Dance” and so on, and as usual they settle into a regular four for the solos. The delicacy of Brubeck’s solos throughout these sides is exceptional. He really was a remarkable musician. And Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein doesn’t deserve its obscurity.
* The photograph of the quartet — left to right: Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Gene Wright, Joe Morello — is from the cover of the album.
** Philip Clark (@MusicClerk) kindly points out that Dialogues was reissued in a series of CDs called Bernstein Century, and the whole thing came out in January 2011 via Essential Jazz Classics. I’m afraid I don’t know whether either of those versions preserved a little reverb at the end of the suite.