Taking five with the four: Chris Brubeck talks jazz, upcoming Breckenridge concert
IF YOU GO
What: Brubeck Brothers Quartet
When: Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show begins at 7:30 on Thursday, July 11
Where: Riverwalk Center, 150 W. Adams Ave., Breckenridge
Cost: $25-$40. Visit BreckMusic.org to purchase.
Jazz is in Chris Brubeck’s blood. It’s a difficult genre to escape as one of jazz legend Dave Brubeck’s six children. His father’s quartet is famous for the 1959 album “Time Out,” which contains influential jazz standards such as “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo à la Turk.” Now, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the record, multi-instrumentalist Chris, his drummer brother Dan Brubeck, guitarist Mike DeMicco and pianist Chuck Lamb — known as the Brubeck Brothers Quartet — are performing at the Riverwalk Center.
Naturally, music was common in the household, but “there may have been less music than a lot of people presume,” said Chris, “in the sense that my father was on tour all the time. When he was gone, the only music being made in our house was my older brothers and myself and my younger brother Dan playing.”
They were constantly surrounded by Dave’s fellow band members like drummer Joe Morello and alto saxophonist Paul Desmond but — comparing it to baseball player Willie Mays’ family being around teammate Willie McCovey — he wasn’t starstruck by his “honorary uncles.”
“We were in a very unique position because we went literally from rug rats that knew them to little, aspiring instrumentalists that practiced their scales like every other kid, to finally being accomplished enough musicians that we got to play with them at the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall and these other venues around the world where we got to make music with them,” he said. “It was quite an evolutionary path for us.”
Like most musicians, his father’s success wasn’t immediate. Chris recalled his family staying in one hotel room in Pittsburgh while Dave was on tour, with Chris sleeping in a dresser drawer as a crib. According to Chris, Dave’s career really started to gain momentum when he made the cover of Time in 1954. The light bulb of realizing his father was a big deal went off when they were headed to a concert in New Jersey and stopped for food at a diner. Back in those days, the restaurant booths had individual jukeboxes that would play the latest hits.
“You might get a ‘Hard Days Night’ or ‘Good Vibrations’ or whatever,” Chris said. “And there was like ‘Take Five,’ ‘Blue Rondo à la Turk,’ by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. I go, ‘Oh my God! My dad must be somebody! He’s on a jukebox!’”
Because he was immersed in jazz at such a young age, Chris initially thought early rock ‘n’ roll was “stupid” due to its musical simplicity. But then he discovered The Beatles, which led him to other classic rock artists such as Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. He formed the funk band Sky King and they released their one and only album, “Secret Sauce,” on Columbia Records in 1975. Steve Cropper, known for his work with Book T. & the M.G.’s and appearing in “The Blues Brothers” film, produced the album, yet Chris said that due to issues with Columbia a second album never saw the light even though it was completed.
At that point Dave invited his son to play jazz with his quartet and Chris didn’t look back. He’d still compose songs for people like rhythm and blues performers Patti LaBelle and Bobby Womack, but his life had solidly returned to one of jazz.
Not a tribute band
Eventually, as tastes and genres changed over time and members bounced around bands, Dan and DeMicco left their jazz fusion group Digital Dolphins to play with Chris, forming the Brubeck Brothers Quartet and releasing their first album in 2001.
Because their quartet would occasionally be booked at the same festivals as their father, the bands first three records were purposefully all original music.
It wasn’t until Dave was in his 90s that DeMicco and Lamb suggested honoring his repertoire. In 2012 the group came out with “Lifetimes,” which contained reimagined Dave Brubeck Quartet songs. 2018’s “Timeline” was a similar tribute, focusing on the 60th anniversary of Dave’s 1958 Department of State sponsored tour. The historical event was set up by the Eisenhower administration to broadcast over the Iron Curtain as musicians traveled to 14 countries, performing 80 concerts over 90 days. One of those was Turkey, where street musicians playing in 9/8 time inspired “Blue Rondo à la Turk.” Next year, the Brubeck Brothers Quartet will tour to honor Dave’s centennial.
“We’re intertwined with Dave Brubeck’s musical legacy,” said Chris. “We’re keeping his music alive in a way that would greatly please him, and it’s not a stretch because we kept it alive playing it when he was alive.”
The group won’t play “Time Out” straight through for Thursday’s concert and the songs they do won’t be like any album recording heard before. This is jazz, after all, where improvisation reigns. The quartet plays mainly straight-ahead jazz, a term for the post-’70s style that’s more traditional, but will also tie in references to the funk and rock Chris and Dan listened to growing up.
“It’s 80% straight-ahead, post-bebop swing, but then this other stuff comes in. … We’re a big democracy in how we play and develop arrangements and of course, because we really are jazz musicians, we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
For instance, “Take Five” may have been originally released as a five-minute, 28-second song, but who knows how long it’ll be on stage. They aren’t afraid to not strictly adhere to jazz roots, which Dave didn’t do either.
“In my father’s group when he played that, he would make it very different. The recognizable part is the melody. It has two A sections and a bridge, and off it goes. And that’s the same thing for us. It’s not unusual for Dan to play a five- or six-minute drum solo, maybe even more.”
However, concertgoers are likely to hear a send-up to the late New Orleans musician Dr. John. Dan accidentally started emulating the beat from second line parades with his snare and bass drum at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, where the twist received approval from late saxophonist Gerry Mulligan.
Though that song and many of Dave’s are bedrock of the musical genre, it may come as a surprise to some he was also bucking trends at the time with the revolutionary “Time Out.”
“It broke all of the rules,” Chris said. “First of all, there wasn’t a pretty girl on the cover. It was a piece of modern art. … Then, it wasn’t “My Favorite Things” or songs from “My Fair Lady” or jazzed up version of Broadway songs. It was original music. That was a no-no. On top of that, it was original music in odd time signatures, which was a super, duper no-no.”
Chris admits that jazz is no longer at its height of popularity, but he hopes people who don’t consider themselves fans of the genre will attend with an open mind to hear unique riffs, like Dan — who Chris compares to Keith Moon from The Who — rock out on the drums. As with most live events, the audience’s energy is a critical factor in shows.
“The most important thing is the audience. Our dad always said the audience is the fifth member of the group. We did a tour in Canada where the audience was super responsive and enthusiastic and screaming and applauding after solos.”
Chris hopes he, and other artists, can continue to spread that joy through music.
“It’s up to us musicians and writers to try to keep the balance in the world by making available that beautiful thing that brings us together. And we know from touring the world that music is a universal language and it pulls people together of all different nationalities and political backgrounds.
“Let’s hope it doesn’t loose it’s magic, because we need that fraternity through music more than ever.”
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