Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Fender Rhodes Scholars: A tribute to Robert Lamm, Stevie Wonder, Ramsey Lewis, and Herbie Hancock


The four names of my tribute I list in ascending order: the last, Herbie Hancock, being in my estimation the head of the class of the Fender Rhodes electric piano "scholars" -- while the first, Robert Lamm, being the lesser of the four, though still remarkable compared with all those who didn't quite make the grade.

Perhaps one of the most important features of the Fender Rhodes electric piano is its uniqueness which sets it apart from the acoustic piano. Those who consider the Fender Rhodes electric piano to be merely a second-class copy or substitute for the acoustic piano will tend to under-utilize, or not utilize at all, its unique features.

One of those unique features is the sound produced when keys are hit hard. I remember my piano teacher in high school, Mr. Doyle, telling the class that the Fender Rhodes, unlike the acoustic piano, has no capacity for soft and hard sound. As the reader may know, the name of the acoustic piano is a shortening of the Italian word pianoforte (the older name for the piano), which literally means "soft-hard" -- since the piano can play both soft or hard sounds (and many shades in between) depending on how softly, or how hard, you hit the keys. It didn't take long for me to realize Mr. Doyle was simply incorrect. In fact, you can play soft or hard on the Fender Rhodes. Granted, the many subtle shades of soft and hard one can elicit from the acoustic piano are not possible on the Fender Rhodes -- but nevertheless, the claim that soft and hard are completely unavailable on the Fender Rhodes is simply false. And particularly with the hard possibility, the player can produce a rather cool percussive effect on the Fender Rhodes, especially with middle-range notes and down to the bass notes.

Robert Lamm

Robert Lamm, keyboardist, songwriter, and lead singer for Chicago, applied this effect with deft aplomb in the song Mongonucleosis (on Chicago VII, the "leather" album).

This, in turn, is related to another nice effect the player can produce on the Fender Rhodes -- chords in the low middle to deep range that sound murky, clustered, somewhat dissonant, and richly percussive. Lamm evidently appreciated this capacity and deployed it well -- to some extent on the aforementioned Mongonucleosis, but most notably in the intro to Lifesaver as well as in the jazz jam Devil's Sweet (both also on the "leather" album).  On other Chicago albums, we note this distinction throughout Rediscovery as well as in the beginning of Hollywood (both on Chicago VI, the "paper money" album); and in Brand New Love Affair (Part I and II, from Chicago VIII, the "needlepoint bird" album). On these songs, Lamm also employs the percussive single note effect.

Both of these effects -- the percussive single note, and the percussive murky cluster chord -- Lamm also deployed on his first solo album, Skinny Boy, perhaps most acutely in the instrumental reprise to Love Song, but also with luscious skill in the main singing version of Love Song.  In both versions, Lamm also integrates the contrapuntal technique of opposing deep bass keys along with the mid-range to deep clotted chords.

Stevie Wonder

Secret Life of Plants 

 Perhaps oddly, I chose to elevate Stevie Wonder above Robert Lamm.  I really have no good reason to do so, because Lamm is that good.  Not only that, but Wonder used the Fender Rhodes in recordings far fewer times, as far as I know (which is saying a lot, because Lamm himself tended to favor the acoustic piano and has a rather sparse track record, compared with my two top luminaries on my list).  However, despite all this, one song alone from Wonder's oeuvre is so strong in the Fender Rhodes department, it lifts his status up in my eyes (and ears):  namely, Power Flower, from his Secret Life of Plants double album.  Again, Wonder makes expert use of the two main qualities of the instrument I noted above: the murky, clotted, condensed nature of the chords (where "murky" is achieved in great part by utilizing more the deeper range, probably below middle C), and the percussive aspect -- though mostly, this is subdued by the sheer "murkiness" Wonder achieves.  It isn't completely submerged, however, for an inescapable ingredient to that murkiness requires some degree of percussivity.  Not only that, but Wonder displays an interesting restraint throughout the song which many other "Fender Rhodesians" fail to sustain.  Typically, a player will start out in a song with a promising style, but the infectious spirit and momentum of the song may tempt him to start devolving a bit too promiscuously and enthusiastically, resulting in various errors of technique, such as hitting high notes without a sufficient percussive attack, thus sounding "rinky-dink", and cluttering up the structure with too much improvisation.  Robert Lamm tended to do this in the otherwise impeccable Happy 'Cause I'm Going Home (from Chicago III, the "torn flag" album), regrettably eliminating it from consideration in my study here.  At any rate, throughout Power Flower, Wonder maintains the integrity of his Fender Rhodes, only in subtle ways branching out with notes, dyads or triads here and there, grounding the "flower" of his paean with the solid earth and interesting rock garden of the interlocking marble stones and dalles of his accompaniment.  As the listener pays close attention, he detects in Wonder's play a sure hand, and sure fingers, able to sound the keys with a notable combination of casual delicacy and unerring control.

Fulfillingness's First Finale

Speaking of this pleasingly understated style, Wonder's Rhodesmanship in some of the songs on his 1974 album, Fulfillingness's First Finale, may easily go unnoticed unless one pays close attention.  In Smile Please, and more subtly, Creepin', one can sense a master at ease, feeling no need for flashy showmanship or histrionics, and imbuing the atmosphere of the song with just the right sound from a use of rich, deep chords.  Similarly, It Ain't No Use, which in addition manages the unassuming feat of incorporating high keys here and there without the slightest intonation of the crime of rinky-dinkiness -- an electric piano error I am for some reason acutely attuned to detecting.  After hearing so many different artists on so many different albums over the years toodling away on high notes without a care or any sense of moderating the sound in order to eliminate that annoying tinny tonality, it is so refreshing to hear its studied, yet effortless, avoidance in Wonder's accomplishment.

Songs in the Key of Life

We next come to my favorite of Wonder's albums, Songs in the Key of Life.  Before I get to that, I must mention the fact that my review skips the album that came out previous to Fulfillingness's First Finale, the 1973 album Innervisions.  Why?  Simply put, because evidently he hadn't yet matriculated and graduated to his full scholarship: the two main songs that employ the Fender Rhodes -- Jesus Children of America, and Livin' for the City -- I regret to say, feature the cloying style of the rinky-dink noodling.  Also, on listening to them again just now, I note another annoying aspect that usually accompanies rinky-dinkism: a kind of wobbly, watery, glassy sound.  It's vaguely akin to the xylophone and the vibraphone, but definitely inferior to them.  Similarly, while Too High doesn't really veer off into rinky-dinkland, it remains watery to a fault.  Apparently, Wonder was a fast learner, however, and only a year later, in his subsequent album, he displayed amazing progress.

Sir Duke

And so, speaking of amazing progress, we hear even more delicious verve from the Fender Rhodes on the 1976 album, Songs in the Key of Life.  Where to begin with this uniquely magical session?  Why not with Sir Duke, that wondrously infectious gem of jazz!  Wonder's accompaniment on the Fender Rhodes is superb -- yet, again, modestly assimilated along with the rest of the gang of instruments.  An inquisitive and discriminating ear is necessary to uncover the treasure he's offering.  While again he navigates the effervescence of the song with clotted chords of the deeper registers, juxtaposing the percussive bass keys, he also a couple of times comes perilously close to diversifying with higher notes -- but each time, it is executed flawlessly.  Most notable in this particular number is his devilish choice to follow along with the interludes during which the brass (two saxophones and two trumpets) and the electric bass are synched up exactly along a madly precisioned, frenetic, and extended line of notes.  Most any other musician would have chosen to play higher keys, but Wonder is right along with the skilfull jazz artists he has enlisted every step of the way, fingering the deeper bass keys.  A more conservative musician might have thought, "I don't want to play bass notes, when the electric bass is already prominent in this part..."  But Wonder's decision turns out to be a stroke of genius.  It's difficult to tell the Fender Rhode's bass keys from the electric bass when they are both sounding the exact same notes, especially when the tempo is so fast.  At times, the only discernible difference is the peculiarly metallic, percussive attack of the former, which, when the listener catches it, elicits a frisson of pleasure.

Isn't She Lovely

When I next took a fresh listen to another track on the album, Isn't She Lovely (a song I've listened to and played along with on the acoustic guitar probably a hundred times over the years), I suddenly got worried that perhaps mistakenly I had been assuming that Stevie Wonder was the one playing the Fender Rhodes on these songs.  I panicked when my first look at a discography website only listed Greg Philinganes as playing keyboards on various songs of this album.  I then looked him up on YouTube, just to see if his style matched the superlative stylings on this album.  The couple of songs I found in which he plays a Fender Rhodes were mediocre and dominated by the rinky-dink tendency.  Then, thankfully, I found a more complete discography on Wikipedia which indeed specifies Stevie Wonder playing Fender Rhodes on the following tracks: 

Love's in Need of Love Today
I Wish
Knocks Me Off My Feet
Ordinary Pain
Black Man
Isn't She Lovely.

There isn't much new to say about the last song I was mentioning earlier -- Isn't She Lovely -- beyond all the praises I have articulated heretofore, simply inflected within the context of the song itself.  Wonder put his characteristic deep and strong fullness in chording to solidly satisfying use here, and without it, the song simply wouldn't be the same; although probably most listeners never notice its essential role.  And as with Sir Duke, though less flamboyantly, Wonder follows with deep bass keys (and perhaps a triad at each climax) in perfect synch with a repeated fast line of notes that crops up at every turnaround.

Black Man, I Wish, Knocks Me Off My Feet, As, Ordinary Pain

 The song Black Man is not terribly remarkable; other than what seems to be an acrobatic and forcefully hectic bass key play afoot (though it's too difficult to tell if it's not all electric bass with some special effects), at certain moments Wonder lurches into a soupçon of rinky-dinkitude and otherwise seems to be modifying the sound with electronic bells & whistles.

While the Fender Rhodes in I Wish has slight spasms that sound almost rinky-dinkish, I must solemnly forgive them all -- for the song is just that kickass; and virtually all of the playing is stellar.  It's possible that the slight spasms I alluded to are an unavoidable fallout from the fact that in this song particularly, Wonder is negotiating and navigating exchanges of dyads & triads in quick syncopations.  At any rate, the richly clotted feel of the deep chords and bass keys redeems the song eminently.

Alas, no one is perfect:  in Knocks Me Off My Feet, Wonder unfortunately divagates into rinky-dinky forays a bit too much.  Nevertheless, I remain ambivalent about this song, because it's such a good song, and because when his Fender Rhodes playing hits the mark (which is most of the time), it works quite well -- particularly when coordinating with his own overtracked acoustic piano.  Such a combination should be tried more.

Speaking of perfection and how no one in this life embodies it at all times, even Herbie Hancock in his own oeuvre, and in his guest spot on Wonder's album here in the song As -- an otherwise sublime song -- occasionally indulges excursions into rinky-dinksterism.  Not all his playing here suffers so; certain areas are delicious, but overall, I cannot bless it with my imprimatur.  But with Herbie, that's okay; he can rest on his laurels (about which more in the section devoted to him coming up soon, after Ramsey Lewis) all day long.

As I listened to Ordinary Pain again, I begin to notice a theme here:  That of whether a song is mixed with good and poor techniques (rendering me more or less ambivalent), and whether the artist has otherwise produced enough excellence to redeem him from getting flunked from his Rhodes Scholar degree.  Ordinary Pain is one of those, and I suppose what I do psychologically with a song like that is simply enjoy it on all the other levels on which it excels, and try to ignore lurking signs of the three capital crimes I have teased out thus far:  1) rinky-dinkiness; 2) watery tonality; and 3) adulterating the original sound with special effects.  As I said above, whether these "crimes" ruin a song depends upon a variety of factors, and sometimes a song is so it good survives -- as a good song, that is, not as a good example of optimal Fender Rhodes playing.

So, to recap:  only two songs survive my finicky criteria -- Sir Duke and Isn't She Lovely.  Isn't it something, that a mere two songs can be so entrancing of Fender Rhodes playing that they raise the entire album up as an exemplar of the type?  And not only that, they join with the previous album I reviewed above, Fulfillingness's First Finale, to elevate Stevie Wonder into the pantheon of Fender Rhodes Scholars.

Onward and upward now, to...

Ramsey Lewis

The output of Ramsey Lewis since he started in the 1960s is dizzyingly cornucopic.  Lucky for my purposes here, I only need to focus on those pieces of his that feature the eponymous instrument (though I may well have overlooked some examples, since I haven't had the pleasure of hearing all of it).  With Ramsey, unlike Stevie Wonder and Robert Lamm, we have someone who has reached supernal heights on the acoustic piano, which is his real instrument where one senses he is most at home.  Nevertheless, most great acoustic pianists, whether in jazz, pop or rock, rarely are able to master the subtler, finer points of the Fender Rhodes, and more often than not, botch it.  Not so Ramsey.

Before I get to the wonderful news about Ramsey, I must dispense with some examples that show that while he is an eminent scholar of this instrument, he is no saint: his playing has often been imperfect.

Sun Goddess

Speaking of imperfection:  on the first album he made which contains a jewel -- Sun Goddess -- there are, alas, a few clunkers, which with dispatch I'll dispense with.  Tambura -- nice percussive stabs here and there, but mostly compromised by the faults of watery tone and rinky-dinks.  Jungle Strut -- the usual sins; and I realized on listening that one problem with rinky-dink is that it entails an unappealing percussivity -- in a sense, a "cheap" sound.

Don't It Feel Good

Similarly from the 1975 album, Don't It Feel Good, the songs that do employ the Fender Rhodes -- Can't Function and Juaacklyn -- are rather thoroughly watery & rinky-dink.


Considering the 1976 album Salongo, we must unfortunately conclude the same -- watery & rinky-dink Fender Rhodes.  Brazilica has some quite nice moments (particularly when Lewis embarks upon an extended solo the first time: those opening mid-range notes are exquisite).  Overall, though, the song is, alas, marred by the curse of the watery rinky-dinks...

Speaking of that (that seems to be all I've been speaking of...!), if ever there was an attempt at a good case for the defense of the watery rinky-dinks, it would be the long opening, and then the closing, of his beautiful song Nicole from the same album.  Lewis almost achieves the effect of a celesta and in many ways I suppose one could look at a transformation of the Fender Rhodes into another instrument here (though one could reasonably ask why he didn't simply choose to use a celesta for the song...?).  I would grant that; though I can't help the nagging feeling that had Lewis gone into that song more obsessively scrupulous about avoiding the Fender Rhodes "sins", he may have achieved an even superior effect in the end.

Sun Goddess (reprise)

Now to backtrack to the jewel, Sun Goddess.  I refer to the title track of the 1974 album of the same name.  A stellar song in so many ways (particularly that novel type of rhythm guitar strumming), and what impels it into the stratosphere Ramsey's keymanship.  It is, nonetheless, another case of a perfection paradoxically flawed -- but only minimally.  There are hints of the two "original sins" here and there, but overall, this song stands as a kind of pioneering gold standard of the phenomenon showcased in this essay. Whatever golden moments we may enjoy in this song are exponentially advanced in his next two albums, beyond all our wildest dreams.

Tequila Mockingbird

As I've been writing this essay, I've been listening to these songs afresh; and while doing so, I've been thinking more carefully about my taste and criteria with regard to my central point here.  As a result, I find myself a tad chagrined that upon listening again to Wandering Rose (the second cut on the album) -- a song I was sure from memory would easily make the grade -- that it is rather full of defects in the watery & rinky-dink departments.  Don't get me wrong; the song is still exquisite, but now I realize it could have been that much better, had Ramsey tightened up his playing.  This is also not to say there aren't many moments of impeccable Rhodesmanship in the song.  The question, though, at the end of the day, is: are there enough good moments to outweigh the bad?  It's a rhetorical question, meant to provoke a provisional assessment every time we give this song, and any other of the imperfect songs under scrutiny, a fresh listen.

Speaking of songs I was sure from memory would be impeccable, I'm almost afraid to listen to one of the other Fender Rhodes features of the album, Camino del Bueno again...   Here goes...  Sigh... I just listened to it, and regretfully must report too much rinky dink and watery tones -- notwithstanding otherwise fine playing.  Another flaw I just noticed in these twin sins is the way dyads or triads sound when carelessly played without heed for the utmost quality of sound.

The least likely -- in my memory at least -- candidate for the best Fender Rhodes song is in My Angel's Smile.  Though again (sorry to so tediously belabor this point) it is not perfect and involves the twin flaws, it sufficiently excels in avoiding them to qualify.  Other qualities Ramsey utilizes here of note:  his ultra-high staccato emphases at crucial junctures, his nice use of the sustain pedal for rich-bodied chords at the right time, and his appropriate use of glissando at the very end.

Speaking of glissando, there is one paradisic moment in Skippin' that must be acknowledged where, after the acoustic piano solo, Ramsey performs a long series of ascending, run-on arpeggias ending up impossibly high -- followed by the same arpeggios on the Fender Rhodes (ending on a sumptuously incisive high key that sounds like the highest key on the whole damned board).


Certainly the album that Ramsey issued some three years later in 1980, Routes, which shows a marked and distinct evolution in style and refinement of sound engineering, may be his best album, it does not really showcase the Fender Rhodes sufficiently -- other than one excellent song -- to merit a major place in the pantheon.  (Now, if we were grading our papers on the basis of acoustic piano, this album would indeed earn a place in the stars.)

While the first song on the album, Whisper Zone, is an aesthetically ethereal delight, and while the Fender Rhodes does have a cool effect enabling its high notes to be more pointedly scintillating, it perpetrates the rinky dink so much it's positively tinkly dink...  It thus fails the specific test of my essay here.

The only pertinent song, Tondelayo, does pass the test.  At the beginning, Ramsey earns the distinction of playing a deep -- and I mean deep -- bass line with the bass keys with the sexiest verve I have ever heard them played.  The single note fills and the solo are also flawless in their tonality.

Herbie Hancock


On this album, Actual Proof  in a way is just one long extended Fender Rhodes solo, riding over the complex waves of amazing polyrhythms from the drums and bass  (ably mastered by Mike Clark and Paul Jackson, respectively).  I wish I could render a verdict devoid of ambivalence -- but, alas, I cannot.  I must reiterate again that my extreme strictures for the purposes of this essay do not necessarily detract from the wonder of such songs as this (nor from my enjoyment of them).  It's just that under the tighter lens of my scrutiny here, I find certain key aspects wanting.  In those terms, then I'd say that the compressed yet powerfully broad glissandos Herbie does a few times (also, nicely, at the very end) are perhaps the best feature.  Otherwise, I'm afraid that the songlong solo, while fabulous in other terms, just doesn't measure up.

While I began with some criticisms of Actual Proof; the other Fender Rhodes songs are even more flawed (but, again, still great on their own terms).  While I'm here, I would note that Palm Grease and Spank-a-Lee do evince quite impressive accompaniment (as opposed to soloing) from the Fender Rhodes, in terms of nice thick chords acrobatically fielded in the pertinent junctures.  And in a way my more intense focus here is forcing me to adopt a higher standard where ordinarily I would praise these feats unequivocally.  Nevertheless, I must be ruthless for the precise purposes here.  There are also a couple of moments in Butterfly where Herbie's appositely percussive single notes rise to a noteworthy level.


Let us now try his next album of all new songs, Man-Child -- perhaps his best album overall. 

Sun Touch 

Sun Touch is exquisite for its Fender Rhodesmanship.  It veers ever so faintly on an erring vector when Herbie connects his meandering play with triads or dyads, moving me to wonder if there is something about such two-note and three-note blocks which, when they are of a high register and when they are deployed quickly amid a complex run of notes, is inherently liable to the watery and/or tinkly problematics.  I.e., perhaps it's unavoidable; but still, I feel convinced it can be done better.  It's likely that Herbie was not, at that precise moment, nor in his reflection about it in rehearsal, fully cognizant of the obsession I am articulating here, and thus he was not on guard against so veering.  Other than that lurking hint of a problem, overall this song is a masterpiece.  As with Actual Proof, Sun Touch is one long extended solo practically from start to finish, and Herbie weaves his notes throughout in thoughtful intricacy and musing experimentation -- almost as though he were pondering the keys in meditative motion.  A nod should also be lent to his use of echo and reverb effects combined with the sustain pedal -- not overtly hamming it up; rather, only in ways entrancingly appropriate to every passing moment (and the hi-hat and cymbalwork of the drummer, which might be the first of three listed at Discogs, Mike Clark).

Steppin' In It

I may be blunter and less verbose here and just say that this song has essentially two Fender Rhodes solos:  the first one is excellent; the second one (immediately following the amazing harmonica solo by guest artist Stevie Wonder) unfortunately succumbs to all the sins I've described variously above.  The first one also attains a near perfect ability to surmount the problem of the dyad & triad I've already mentioned -- not quite succeeding, but so close I can almost say that it reverses the "close but no cigar" cliché.


After all the smoke has cleared, and I actually reviewed these various albums and songs afresh, I found that my memory of them was not all that accurate.  I began writing this thinking that Herbie Hancock was the clear winner, and that Ramsey Lewis was the clear runner-up.  I'm no longer so sure.  The phenomenon of relative superiority has become complicated, so much so that I almost feel like juggling all four in some kind of perpetual equilibrium whereby one of them may momentarily bob up higher while my focus trains on them, then recede when my attention moves to another.  This dynamic in turn is further complicated by the relative forces of various individual songs, transcending both albums and, at the end, artists.

I.e., there are songs, or areas of songs, where Robert Lamm or Stevie Wonder is every bit as good, or even better, than Herbie Hancock or Ramsey Lewis.  I thus cannot definitively pronounce a winner of this esteemed competition.  Perhaps if I thought about it more rigorously, I could come up with one; but I'm not so sure I would want to expend that amount of time and effort, not knowing whether it would be a waste of time in the end. 

Afterword:  Honorary Scholars & Flunkeys

Among the former category, I note Harry Connick, Jr., and Paul McCartney.  Among the latter, Al Zulaica, Norah Jones, Tom Coster, and Bob James.

Harry Connick, Jr.

I haven't heard more than a few albums from Harry, and among them all, there is only one song where he digs into the Fender Rhodes.  Specifically, on his album She, in the song That Party, Harry remarkably captures the cooler mechanics of the art, distinctly harking back to the 70s style of playing, reminiscent of Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock.

Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney, by contrast, has a few noteworthy efforts on the instrument -- not quite enough, somehow, to warrant my induction of him into the Hall of Fame above.  The songs I would cite are:

Ram On (from his second solo album, Ram) isn't bad -- nice use of the deep bass notes and chording, with an echoey effect put to good use.  At certain points it does veer to the brink of the rinky-dink, particularly toward the end, but the good parts remain noteworthy.

Picasso's Last Words (from the Red Rose Speedway album) -- Here (after the "French" clarinet interludes), Paul demonstrates a nice exploitation of the deep percussive bass keys and deep clotted chords, employed unassumingly but quite competently.

Al Zulaica

Al Zulaica, an otherwise fine keyboardist (acoustic piano mainly) backing up Latin jazz bands, especially Cal Tjader, performs rather dismally when he tries his hand at the Fender Rhodes.  Basically every song on the album Agua Dulce where he plays the instrument, he does so poorly in terms of the criteria I've adduced here.  Curaçao, in particular, squanders the potential of an unusual interplay between electric piano and vibes which would have benefited from a stricter application of style; while the solo is well nigh atrocious.  The only song where he approaches a hint of what he could have done is Descarga Cubana -- all the more painful when one thinks of what might have been...

Norah Jones

As for Norah Jones, I'm even less acquainted with her work than any of the other names here.  This tube chop of a live performance indicates a refreshing interest in the Fender Rhodes, unlike many of her peers -- but, alas, there occur too many slip-ups to constitute a passing grade...

Tom Coster

I wish I didn't have to add Tom Coster to the list of Flunkeys...  His memorable début solo for Santana on the Caravanserai album, on the song La Fuente del Ritmo, certainly is accomplished, dazzling the ear with a nimble aplomb all up and down the keys reminiscent of Bob James; marred, nonetheless, by the twin sins.  Tom's subsequent work on the album Welcome shows promising signs.

On Love, Devotion and Surrender, for example, he manages the high end in terms of sprinkly notes and dyads & triads well most of the time, but perhaps not enough of the time to rise up to distinction.  Samba de Sausalito is essentially one long Fender Rhodes solo -- and my review of it is thoroughly mixed.  It's a maddening interlocking jigsaw puzzle of good and bad techniques; and for that reason alone I am sorely tempted to render an unfavorable verdict.  When I Look Into Your Eyes elicits a milder ambivalence, and anyway, for its faults, has some very neat use of deep single notes in synch with flute, not to mention plenty of satisfactory chordism along with bass notes, that I wouldn't feel too guilty twitching a thumb upon when nobody's looking...  Yours Is The Light, meanwhile, again has deeply pleasing chordwork, as well as single notes in tandem with the vocals of Flora Purim, perfectly enunciated with his fingers.  Perhaps the juiciest song (on this album, at any rate) in terms of exploiting the potential of the Fender Rhodes to evoke dreamy reverberations of metallically crystalline nuances is Light of Life, along with a couple of brief solos that execute mid-range notes passably well.  The incessantly regular chording in Flame/Sky is nicely fitting, and nice to hear.

Bob James

Speaking of Bob James:  He's a great arranger, with a great sense of quality soft jazz.  But I had to laugh when I went over to YouTube just now to reacquaint myself with him, starting with the album Touchdown -- and within the first 60 seconds of Angela (a wonderful song, don't get me wrong), he reminded me that he earns the dubious distinction of being the King of the Watery Rinky-Dink.  He was quite a distinguished jazz artist in his day, as the 70s unfolded, and it is quite possible that his style influenced others to feel they had to play the instrument that way; and Lord knows that's the way it's played by innumerable garden-variety hacks and knock-offs one has heard over the years on pop albums or in television & movie soundtracks.  This only makes those exceptions who cropped up along the way (e.g., Robert Lamm and others I mention above) that much more remarkable, for going against the grain.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Dave Brubeck: The Early Golden Years

This review covers only four early albums of Dave Brubeck—the experiments in “time” that I consider to be solid gold:

Time Out (1959)

Time Further Out: Miro Reflections

Countdown: Time in Outer Space

Time Changes (1963).

The musical personnel on all four albums were the same, the best that Brubeck enjoyed, before or since: Dave Brubeck on piano, Paul Desmond on alto saxophone, Eugene Wright on standup bass, and Joe Morello on drums.

Time Out (1959)

Time Out is the most famous of these albums (if not of Brubeck’s entire discography)—principally for the song that is probably Brubeck’s most known, Take Five. In my estimation, however, this album is the weakest of the four assembled here; yet even so, it sparkles in many places with the brilliance of the gold mine it shares with the others. To say it is the weakest is really only a roundabout way of expressing the virtually indescribable excellence of the other three.

Take Five

To deal with the most used coin first—Take Five—the only quibble we might offer is the overlong drum solo. I tend to find drum solos generally insipid, the only exception being, in fact Joe Morello’s far better explorations in the later albums (particularly Countdown) we will get to shortly. Not that I do not at times find the Take Five drum solo mildly pleasing; it’s just that it has too much of that sloppy snare drum sound, it tends to be rather too loose and not tight enough, and at the end of the day it seems to have been fit into the model of the song (perhaps by the author, Paul Desmond, himself) as a way to fill time with a song structure that is, frankly, rather sparse. Nevertheless, the alto sax melodies which Desmond has worked out to inform his song gleam like a perfect dry martini.

Brubeck, somewhat uncharacteristically, maintains a passively repetitious comp in the background—one, of course, that the listener recognizes is essential to the feel of the piece. As there are no other 5/4 experiments on this earliest album (1959), and on the liner notes of the immediately following album, Time Further Out (1961), we are told that Brubeck found the 7/4 rhythm of Unsquare Dance to be a challenge for him, it seems that Brubeck was a little slower than Desmond was in becoming comfortable with the odder time signatures. In the latter two albums we are examining—Countdown: Time in Outer Space (1962), and Time Changes (1963)—we will see that Brubeck eminently catches up with his colleague in his verve and facility for 5/4, 7/4, difficult combinations of 2/4 and 3/4, and even in one instance, 13/8 (unfortunately, the one 11/4 tune that Desmond wrote and shines on relegates Brubeck to a comping mode reminiscent of Take Five, though executed this time around with considerably more flexibility and ease).

Blue Rondo à la Turk

The real jewel of Time Out, however, is the lesser known Blue Rondo à la Turk. It’s basically two different songs fused together at two cross-temporal intersections: one at the beginning and near the end, the second stretching its muscles throughout the long middle. The first song is a fast-paced “rondo” in 7/8 time, exhibiting a classical air as well as a hint of Spanish folk rhythms and even possibly Latin influence, perhaps something Ravel or Bizet might have dashed off in one of their more daring, if capricious, moments. The piano work in this fast 7/8 section, although still predominantly comping, nevertheless displays a good deal of acrobatics with the contrapuntal jabs of bass keys and top chords-cum-arpeggios; and in certain instances does seem to undermine our previous theory about Brubeck’s earlier difficulties with the stranger times. The “blue” part of this piece, laid out in an unctuously leisurely 4/4—intercut in its introductory moments with jagged shards of the hectic “rondo” as it transitions out—, is a consummately polished exercise in the blandiloquence of “cool jazz”, deliciously filled out with Desmond’s alto sax—sounding sexy here rather than dry—as well as Brubeck’s signature style of single notes meandering pointedly on all the right notes. And all the while, Wright on acoustic bass and Morello on drums groove along in a classic walking style.

Strange Meadow Lark

This strange song glides from a stately, romantic prelude of pure piano to a tenderly ethereal yet sensual foray in Desmond’s alto sax that evokes in the listener a Sunday drive on a winding, suburban, deciduously dappled and sun-glinting road on perhaps a warm April day. When that lovely afternoon winds to a close, Morello’s perfectly placed crash cymbal introduces Brubeck’s other signature piano style: soloing in block chords instead of single notes.

Miscellaneous Tunes

This essay is not intended to cover all the ground of these four albums, so I may very well skip certain songs, or only mention them in passing (as with the first three songs on side B: Three To Get Ready, a smartly twinkling little number, slyly moving back and forth from 2/4 to 3/4; Kathy’s Waltz, another sun-dappling invention that calls to mind a pleasant drive in a big sedan along maple and poplar-shaded suburban roads; and Everybody’s Jumpin’, a similarly dapper and winking little divertissement).

Pick Up Sticks

We could never forget Pick Up Sticks, however. While we touted Blue Rondo à la Turk as the crown jewel of this album, Pick Up Sticks is nevertheless singular—unique, even, not only to this particular album, perhaps, but to all four albums under consideration here (if not Brubeck’s entire oeuvre). The piece opens immediately, with no preface, on the smashing sound of Morello’s ride cymbal juxtaposed to the first deep tone of Wright’s ingeniously repetitive bass line—followed a split-second later by Brubeck’s blockish chord style, which continues a while until Desmond’s alto sax enters on an incisively neat solo. It is when Desmond’s solo subsides that Pick Up Sticks really picks up: Brubeck here delivers one of his best single-note solos I have ever heard, only toward its close filling out with his en bloc chord style. His single notes punctuate the texture of the grain so ably supported by Wright and Morello—the former’s deeply grinding bass undergirding the latter’s smoky blues club ride cymbal—with deadly slick expertise and impeccable calculation.

Time Further Out: Miro Reflections (1961)

Unsquare Dance

This album has its “star” too, just as Time Out had its Take Five—in this case a witty little caprice that, although not nearly as famous as Take Five, has its own ensconced notoriety among musicians, music teachers and the public television and arts crowd. We are of course referring to Unsquare Dance: an exercise—indeed, an unashamed gimmick—in 7/4 time, constructed as a square dance in turn based on the 3-chord blues pattern. Not only is the title a play on the musical style it is parodying, it is also a wink to the then current late 50s, early 60s beatnik slang whereby most things “square” were to be mocked and avoided at all cost.

Maori Blues

Not so cute as Unsquare Dance, is the interestingly intelligent number written by drummer Joe Morello, Maori Blues. For the creation of a drummer, it is noteworthy that Maori Blues is dominated by Brubeck’s piano: indeed, the entire song is one long piano solo—riprapped, to be sure, by the supple and keen dexterity of Morello’s drum art, in this song utilizing more variety than usual, in a myriad subtle ways, ranging from the rapid fire on the center disc of the ride cymbal to his cunning tom-tom work, here and on Far More Drums inspired indirectly by Maori folk music. I’ve always wondered, for the more than two decades I’ve listened to Brubeck, whether Morello actually wrote out all the piano that Brubeck plays here, or whether he just laid down a loose structure and let Brubeck go to town on it. It’s hard to tell, because Brubeck’s solo style, as I theorize, is very structured and definitive: he does not sound like the typical jazz musician who tends to go into the recording studio and just improvise completely ad lib. His solos may have begun as free-form improvisations, but I get the sense that he works them over laboriously until he crafts exactly what he wants to play when the tapes run—and from then on, the solo is frozen. And who could fault him for that, when one hears the solos? They are, as far as I can tell, indisputably perfect. At any rate, whoever is responsible for the piano of Maori Blues—and it’s likely to be, at least in certain areas, an intimate collaboration of both Brubeck and Morello—it proves to be one of the coolest, smartest songs the Brubeck Quartet ever recorded.

Bru’s Boogie Woogie

Then there’s Bru’s Boogie Woogie: the best damn foot-tapping boogie woogie in recording history. The driving pulse throughout the song is the classic three-chord boogie-woogie scheme, and it starts with a bang, takes off like a speeding train, and during the long middle section, flies off the ground like a cropduster meaning business. Desmond’s horn is not present throughout, but it doesn’t seem to matter: Brubeck’s instrument rules the melodic tectonics through a joyous logic—whether spidercracking a kaleidoscope of individual keys or hammering those block chords he wields so effortlessly—that burns the house down and shakes the earth under our shuffling feet, at least until he eases up toward the conclusion to bring everything to a nifty end.

Blue Shadows in the Street

Many of Brubeck’s song titles are creative, and some are more evocative than others: such is the case with Blue Shadows in the Street. The somber, stately, cool blue tones that usher it in, and move it along like a dark, sleek vehicle following behind, evoke what the title says: a street, perhaps one of those secluded, cushy streets of brownstones in older Manhattan lined up and a small shop or two, planted with seasoned, burgeoning, copiously leafy trees that in the early night, or late twilight, dissect the lamplight—and perhaps also a shifting moonlight amid patchy clouds—into blue illuminations and blue shadows in jagged designs upon the sidewalks, across the street, on whatever parked cars there may be, and over the walls one passes on a mildly unpleasant, yet wistfully haunted walk, as one’s cigarette smoke lingers now and then behind the pensive preoccupation of our ambigation. . . This, and much more that only poetry can express is what Brubeck’s piano perfects, in its curiously achromatic marmor, particularly after Desmond’s alto sax sets the mood some time after the opening with inimitably rueful intonations saturated in liquid music as bittersweet as expensive vermouth.


On the B side, Bluette echoes some of the tenor and tense of Blue Shadows in the Street—yet in a deeper, darker, bluer inclination. Throughout, Brubeck’s coldly classical and crystalline notes figure icy veins of assonance, when they are not coining cul-de-sacs of quietude. In keeping with the overall temper, Desmond’s alto sax in its overture and closure imbues the blue with breathy, velvety, magnetic, almost solemnly sonorous tonality underscored by Wright’s bass bowed in a gravely occult drone; while in its solo, it delves into and parses the blue with glimmers of reflectivity as pure and yet as tart as the sleekest gin. Before the end, Desmond’s alto sax engages in a counterpoint with Brubeck’s piano that accentuates the almost unearthly classicism of Bluette in turns and parts of symmetry and ice.

Charles Matthew Hallelujah

I would not necessarily include this onean ordinarily lesser piece all toldwere its roundly infectious joy not so tempting to at least call forth a note of mention. As the liner notes indicate, the song was conceived in a spontaneous burst of celebration for the birth of Dave’s son, christened Charles Matthew, and all through it brims and rings with the ecstatic pride of the parent for his child. In the energetically happy, dynamically adamant and aggressively loud chords he accomplishes in his son’s tribute, Brubeck once again shows that indeed, piano is his forte.

Far More Drums

Lest the reader be concerned that I forgot to mark Far More Drums—the first song on side A of this albumfor praise, I hereby assure him that I have merely been saving that amazing vehicle for Joe Morello’s drumming skills for last. Its impetus catapults immediately with a prototype of combination punches in 5/4 (which persists in an undercurrent of permutations from beginning to end), followed by a winsomely sunny and gratifying theme in piano that could easily be overlooked or underrated, in turn leading the way—particularly with the adroitly judicious tropes of basser piano notes discharged by Brubeck—to the long drum solo that forms the body and heart of this song.

This drum solo is simply the best ever recorded by any drummer in music history (far better than the signature solo of Morello’s career in
Take Five), for which the reviewer could not err in his account by pulling out all the stops of superlatives and vernacular extravagance. In persistingly reiterative yet progressively modulating configurations, Morello caroms and batters a series of tom-toms, only tactically accented here and there by shots and smacks of the snare and rims, in alternately satisfying and reciprocally counter-intuitive concatenations—underpinned throughout by an insistent yet subtle motif of the pedal-activated hi-hat that serves to remind the close listener of the ongoing 5/4 beat otherwise seemingly flouted and trampled upon by the protracted and exponentially vehement turbulence of Morello’s solo, as he accelerates madly, yet with a method of madness, elevating percussion to concussion and beyond.

Countdown: Time in Outer Space (1962)

Of this quartet of albums, this is my favorite. It represents the paragon and pinnacle of the collective genius of Brubeck, Desmond, Morello and Wright.


On a bang, it begins with its title song, Countdown—barraging from our speakers right into our living room like a stampede of rhinos with Morello inventively pounding away on orchestral tympani. The perspicacious listener will hear Wright’s not so much walking bass as a jogging bass, its rumbling tones keeping quickly apace with the kettledrums resounding like the earth moving beneath the hooves of the rampant horde. After the throbbing tympani—switching back and forth with brief piano interjections—come booming to a seemingly anticlimactic decrescendo, Brubeck takes over with a roiling a cappela boogie woogie, whose harmonic logic winds down to a nodal culmination actuated by the trenchant splash of Morello’s crash cymbal doubling as the ride cymbal he uses to sustain the fizzing hiss of his accompaniment back with a normal drumset. As is so often the case, the brief piano solo that ensues by Brubeck is elaborated with chord changes at once thoughtful, deliberate and scintillating, with an intimation of a sad intellect—ending as suddenly as it began, with Morello’s tympani and Brubeck’s piano answering each other until the former stomps to a laborious close that rattles like a giant manhole cover spinning and losing ground to finally topple with a slam.

Eleven Four

An exceptional composition titled after its extraordinary tempo in 11/4 time,
Eleven Four wings its brightly euphonious and vernally melancholic way from the very first moment already in mid-flight, continuing to the very end Desmond’s effortless translation of the utterly unnatural eleven beats per measure into a buoyancy lighter than air and, with the greatest of ease, fleeter than a spring breeze. Morello’s concomitance on drums is understated, yet immaculate, riding out the entire song on the ride cymbal, with his pedal-operated hi-hat maintaining a base similar to the one he patented for Take Five (as Brubeck similarly repeats his bass note and chord paradigm from that song) and later for Castillian Drums—employing one unassumingly ingenious switch that only the careful listener will pick up.


A nicer, niftier ditty in the anthology of jazz is likely never to have been written to compare with Eugene Wright’s
Why. (I have a hunch the question mark, normally presumed appropriate for that adverb, was purposefully excluded from the title: a delightful omission.) Wright, the underrated bassist for Brubeck’s quartet, has concocted a modestly elegant and unobtrusively dainty medium for him to go to town—within the snugly composed confines of staying cool as a cucumber—nimbly fingering up and down the fat strings of his upright bass, as Morello helps paint that little town with his brushwork on snare and hi-hat, and Brubeck fills in easygoing coloraturas of leisurely chords and collops all along the way, at one point hitting a high, diamond-thin triad that rings at the right instant like a priceless glass bell.

Castillian Blues

A shrewdly formulated Latin jazz arrangement in which a repeating circle of interesting chord changes provides for its palmy navigation in 5/4, with consummately crack contributions from Desmond, weaving his delectable poesy in woodwind in and around Brubeck’s complementary chords, and from Joe Morello, skillfully deploying his tom-toms with the stylistics that evidently influenced him greatly at the time, as is manifested in
Far More Drums (from the previous album) and Castillian Drums (from side B of the present album), which the liner notes from Time Further Out indicate were partially inspired by his exposure to Maori folk music, but which it seems to me draw also from Latin and African percussion as well as from Morello’s own genius. Also to be noted about this song is the way the marriage of piano and alto sax gladdens the heart with their players’ characteristic, and singular, commingling of blue melancholy and sunny felicity.

Castillian Drums

This isn
t just a vehicle for Morellos drumsit's a veritable motor vehicle accident on the freeway with a ten-car pile-up orchestrated by some berserk yet perfect divine being. It ranks up in the stratosphere with Far More Drums. Collectively considered, these two are arguably the best drum solos in all musical history. I tend to vacillate on which of the two I deem to be number one. No matter: the best drum solo that exists out there, by any other drummer, aside from these, is perforce to be relegated below them to third status.

Before we get to the drum solo, the overture of piano and alto sax is noteworthy for its captivatingly meticulous effervescence, followed by a seemingly unremarkable but in truth fascinating piano solo that prefigures some of the style of clotted notes and serried arpeggios Brubeck will more intensely exploit in his next album,
Time Changes (more about that later). At the end of his piano solo, Brubeck subsides through a trope of assuagingly machine-gunned chords run through a type of circle of fifths, and right after the last chord is struck—artfully fusing staccato and sostenuto—Morello segues by a sudden transition of his ride cymbal frequency, from one sizzling tinniness to another, which in turn signals his embarkation onto a protracted tom-tom solo, only here and there augmented by the odd hi-hat (either pedalled, Take Five-style, or hit open-and-shut).

This convolves no ordinary tom-tom solo, but one with Latin and African overtones as well as bouts of rapidity charged with a flamenco momentum for which “Castillian” seems an apt descriptor, using the device of certain tom-toms tuned unusually loose, endowing them with a deep and bouncy, almost spongy, quality—conducive to a peculiar groaning sound made, one conjectures, by the intensely pressured drag of the drumstick head over the drum skin, somewhat similar to the dull “moaning” sound conga drummers employ by rubbing their palm heels or thumb edge across the conga drum skin. One of the many feats starring in this drum solo is a patch where Morello somehow manages to sustain a snare-drum roll while simultaneously thumping ominously reverberating, diagonally rhythmic formations on a series of two or three deeply tuned tom-toms, before finally wrapping it up with pinpoint integration, leading with the smoothest suddenness back to the piano refrain—and the two of them ending on a charmingly succinct conclusion.

Miscellaneous Tunes

Again, I am loathe to leave any of the songs of this compendium unacknowledged, and when I do so—as with
Fast Life (notable for some deliciously pertinent and clever rimshots from Morello), Three’s A Crowd (somehow, indefinably conjuring the rain-odorous slopes of green Hawaii) and Danse Duet (another example of sophisticated jazz with a wonderful moment of the sun glinting off the windshield of a suburban Sunday drive in a nice big car)—it doesn’t mean they are not good songs; it only means they don’t rise quite as cream to the top. For example, I just can’t leave unmentioned the touch by Morello in the last mentioned, Danse Duet: while he remains laid back with his suave brushes throughout Brubeck’s solo, he intrudes one particular tom-tom & crash cymbal combination that is so spot on, it bypasses the listener’s ear to satisfy his groin with a zing.

Waltz Limp and Back To Earth

These two among the miscellany on side B, however, remain to be more fully praised. I’ve noted before the penchant in some Brubeck songs for a mélange of sadness and brightness. Waltz Limp leans toward the sad part of that paradox, suffused with a minor or mixolydian mode as it unfolds mellifluously through the alto sax and piano solos, and upborne by the deeply contented and tangibly agreeable paradigm maintained by Eugene Wright on the upright bass—with the few strategic variations he inserts here and there experienced by the listener as inspired sagacity incarnate in those bass strings. One wonders whether that bass paradigm and all its variations—in rhythm and notes—were scrupulously blueprinted by Brubeck himself, or whether some of them were contributed by Wright.

Back To Earth

With this last song on side B, it almost feels like the quartet is landing and touching ground again after all the flights of temporal fancy they’ve ventured to the airwaves since the scrumptiously bombastic takeoff of Countdown beginning side A. As Brubeck himself in the liner notes notes: “It brings all of us back to the terra firma of simple swinging 4/4 blues.”

It’s illuminating to focus in on the initial instants of the song: a bass note on the piano, a fifth down from the tonic (I think): a sharp thwack of a snare rimshot: at the same point, the first note of a wide-ranging piano arpeggio leaping high on an arc and shimmering back down. This initial instant is followed by a premonition of the heart of the song, with Morello’s deft swish of the hi-hat, alternately open and snapped shut, in a standard 4/4 jazz rhythm—not a straight 4/4 but what I remember learning in my piano lessons as a child of 12 is called a “donkey gallop” beat—adds the requisite feel and color, offset by Brubeck repeating the rocketing arpeggio parabola that began the song. Without any unnecessary ado, this makes a confident beeline into the swimmingly warm waters of the main drag: here, Morello settles into a supremely loose basis—yet in solid, unquestionable control throughout—for his ongoing accompaniment in ride cymbal, hi-hat and occasional snare hit. From there, the song cruises and coasts along, as the four members of the quartet do what they do best: Brubeck’s piano, and then Desmond’s alto sax, followed by a nice little solo by Wright on bass—concluding with a gimcrack drum solo by Morello—collaboratively ease into an effortless execution of this comfy little zenith of snazzy jazz. Masterful in their professional assurance, taking a break from their fancy experimentations in time, they just kick back to negotiate their sleights-of-hand of faultless relaxation and earthy recreation made musical. And what they
’re cooking is palpable enough for us to lap up. Morello’s concluding drum solo—contrasted with little isles of the song featuring casually lilting tastes from Desmond’s alto sax—contains a couple of marvellous tricks, one manipulating markedly acute strokes of rimshots, the other drawing out the rich sibilance of the open hi-hat longer and plusher than I’ve ever heard it before or since.

Back To Earth was recorded in 1962, and one can feel particularly in this cut the breezy warmth of those halcyon days, before America’s well deserved superiority in the world became darkened with recriminating self doubts and other tragedies (and terrors) one can never expect to keep at bay forever, one supposes.

Time Changes (1963)

The songs on Time Changes—particularly the first three on side A—were what first inspired me to write this essay, and to try to put in poetic words some of the musical quiddity and quintessence each of the songs embody. Chronologically, Time Changes represents the last of the four albums under consideration. I’m not an expert historiographer of Brubeck, but it is my impression that the music he put out after this time rather dramatically lost the luster these four albums captured and cultivated. One can almost feel in Time Changes the vaguely astringent caducity of seasoning, auguring decline—as one senses near autumn that summer is ending (as if the mix of sadness and brightness we’ve noted before in some of the compositions is here crystallizing into some sort of valedictory. . .)—even as it pierces the listener’s ear and heart with some of the most vital and innovative exemplars of the luminosity of its three predecessors.


This starts off (as it ends) with the salty tang of Morello’s metallic rim-shots complemented by tom-tom artistry and something unique in a Brubeck song—maracas: laying down the fast-paced eighth notes in 6/8 time. This is hurried along breathlessly by Brubeck’s piano rolling in to get the music going—yet again in minor-tainted chord changes that endue the atmosphere with a medley of blue and yellow propensities.

What lifts Iberia higher, and moves it deeper, however, is the phenomenal piano solo by Brubeck that forms the dominant crux of the song. It begins ordinarily enough, with a tendency for rumbling run-ons of idoneously violent arpeggios that plunge into the lower register of his keyboard, amplified sparingly with strategic bombardments of ornately dense chords. It isn’t long before these arpeggios coagulate in fascinating clusters of gummy aggregates of notes seized here and there by argute spasms, as though Brubeck were channeling Beethoven hopped up on speed and wrestling with—almost retaliating against—a pianoforte come to viscously refractory life beneath his hands which, at last, for the finale, he wrests from that fantastic mess to a triumphant reprise of its introductory order and splendor.


Here, Brubeck extends 5/4 time into
10/4 time, thereby doubling the listener’s pleasure per measure, as it were. This is another one of those sun-dappled windshield on a suburban drive excursions by Brubeck/Desmond, only now it seems they’ve matured, like a spruce and slightly fruity chardonnay. Before the closing bars, the alto sax and piano exchange genial pleasantries that coax all the amicable honey latent in the song, into full, yet unassuming, flower.

Shim Wa

This little novelty makes our acquaintance on a sly, almost comical sound, lilting limpingly into the room in a kind of broken 3/4 waltz. Once again, however—as with Iberia—Brubeck soon transforms the song, through the long piano solo that forms its bulk, into a wholly other beast that arouses our admiration for his offbeat musical mind. This time, his solo proceeds by dogged—almost perversely fanatical—increments of intensifying abuse of the underlying rhythmic pulse of 3/4 set by Morello’s drums and Wright’s bass, with his left hand—ostensibly a stabilizing force of bass notes-cum-chords—becoming almost demonically unhinged in its insistent, jerky opposition to the beat it is supposed to be carrying.

World’s Fair

If Take Five’s 5/4 time was novel at the time, and then Unsquare Dance’s 7/4 time was even cooler—with Desmond’s Eleven Four expanding our minds even further—World’s Fair at 13/8 time really takes the cake. Over its perplexing yet assertively decided ictus set by Morello’s drums and Brubeck’s piano, Desmond soars in his alto sax—yet not at so lofty an altitude that he loses his breath of a dulcet nightingale: always, rather, within swooping distance of a bluesy embellishment and other means to cavort with the ears of us earthlings. Brubeck’s solo, meanwhile, is not as phantasmagorical as those of the preceding two songs, but it delivers what is needed, like a glass of fine red wine to the pleasantly famished stomach of someone resting from his journey. Towards the end, his impelling chords stealthily counter the ploddingly direct—albeit inherently anomalous—rate in 13/8, upheld with Daedalian fidelity by Morello.

Cable Car

There is not much to remark about Cable Car (which, again, does not mean it is not immensely pleasing), other than that it’s nice to hear Morello toy around with the tintinnabulary acumen elicited by the mucronated apex of his cymbals, as he does here so sportively, mostly in the beginning and at the end.


In 1969, at the age of 13, I went to Woodstock—Woodstock, Virginia, that is; not Woodstock, New York. My mother took me there to spend a couple of months in summer camp, in a pleasant rustic setting outside of town. She finagled my free registration by becoming the camp nurse. Anyway, a few months prior to attending that camp, I had somehow discovered Brubeck, and had already the first two of the four albums mentioned above in my collection—enjoyed on a cheap turntable with a cheesy monaural sound system. I came to camp armed with at least one of these albums (I think it was Time Out), and impressed the two camp counselors (older guys in their late teens, maybe early 20s) there—particularly one of the guys, a young Jewish palooka from Brooklyn or the Bronx. They in turn turned me on to Iron Butterfly’s InAGaddaDaVida (as well as, incongruously, Sugar Sugar by The Archies). It was at that summer camp, too, where during an arts and crafts class I constructed a little bench and then proceeded to paint it blue superimposed with abstract splotches of bright colors, reminiscent in my precocious age of a Jackson Pollock I hadn’t yet even heard of. Not too long after, when I saw the abstract art on the cover of Brubeck’s Time Changes (painted by the lesser-known modern artist Sam Francis), it reminded me of my little bench. The camp counselor, some guy in his 20s, had the sense to give me an "A" for my creation; and when another kid protested that I had produced mere junk, the counselor stood by his grade and said it showed creativity.

Not long after that, I purchased the two later Brubeck albums, and for years following, I listened to them countless times, rarely daring to play along with them on percussion or acoustic guitar—as I did with other music I liked (Paul McCartney, Santana, Paul Simon, James Taylor)—with the possible exception of bongo-drumming along to Unsquare Dance. Only recently have I learned the chords to Castillian Blues, and have been enjoying immensely working out a kind of bass line on the deep strings of my acoustic guitar to that.

§ § §

This quartet of albums by the Dave Brubeck Quartet has always held a special place in my heart, and will as long as I can listen to music and snap my fingers. Putting into words, as something of a wordsmith of late, the magic of their music is my muse’s way of offering a lyrical appreciation to those four gentlemen and statesmen of the silver age of jazz who spun pure gold for their, and our, posterity.