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Dave Brubeck Quartet and Bill Smith at the Earshot Jazz Festival

Dave Brubeck
a shot from the 2001 San Francisco Jazz Festival

Dave Brubeck’s love of surprises took interesting turns in this final event of the 2001 Earshot Jazz Festival. He explained to the packed house at Seattle’s beautifully restored Paramount Theater that the concert got underway late because he had trouble getting his sidemen to leave the backstage television set and the final game of the World Series. Then he said that he would play something the band had never heard from him.

After a long introduction that could have come from a 1930s Harlem rent party, Brubeck launched into “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at the tempo of a fast walk. Bassist Michael Moore and drummer Randy Jones grinned and shook their heads. Bobby Militello used his flute to take a cut at an imaginary fastball. It may have seemed an unlikely choice, but the tune’s changes worked nicely for improvisation. Brubeck played several choruses before Militello, on alto saxophone, and Moore soloed at length, finding gutbucket possibilities that Jack Norworth could not have imagined when he wrote the song in 1908.

Later, Brubeck fired up his Fats Waller left hand again for a fast romp through the harmonic pattern of “I Got Rhythm.” The melody never appeared. Militello played several choruses of bebop alto. Brubeck soloed with single-note lines before he settled into a sequence of block chords. He ended the “Rhythm” changes and appeared to be stopping when he geared down into a slow blues, which came as surprise number two to the rest of the band. Militello incorporated Earl Bostic, Hank Crawford and Charlie Parker into what can be described only as a wild solo. It had the audience cheering. Moore bowed his solo with the lightest of touches and perfect intonation, yet maintained the funky spirit that Brubeck and Militello had established. Brubeck’s adding him to the quartet was a masterly hiring decision.

The rest of the program before the intermission consisted of pieces from Brubeck’s Telarc CD The Crossing, including the title tune. Despite the obviousness of its chugging drama and power, “The Crossing” becomes endearing in the satisfying resolution of its final four bars. “All My Love,” which Brubeck wrote for Iola, his wife of 59 years, is one of his loveliest ballads. “Por Que No?” had the melodic and harmonic flavor of the Caribbean, with a lunging West Indies rhythm. Brubeck took full advantage of the piano’s percussive capabilities.

The second set featured clarinetist Bill Smith, with whom Brubeck established his octet in 1946 when the two studied under Darius Milhaud at Mills College. They began with “I Hear a Rhapsody,” a piece they recorded with the octet. Using a tape loop feedback device, Smith began alone, building a canon that led the way for the rhythm section to join him in tempo. Near the end of Brubeck’s solo, the pianist set up counterpoint. When Smith rejoined him, their interaction was astonishingly like the interplay that was an essential element in Brubeck’s music-making with Paul Desmond. Smith’s and Desmond’s approaches to linear construction and harmony have much in common. “You Go to My Head,” “Koto Song,” “These Foolish Things” and, particularly, “Yesterdays,” evoked the magic of the original quartet.

When Militello returned to the stage to join in “Yesterdays,” he and Smith produced stunning bop solos. In the finale, “Take Five,” Militello, now a master of 5/4 time, soared through his choruses. Brubeck played so far outside that it recalled Desmond’s remark that Dave was capable of making Cecil Taylor sound like Lester Lanin. “Take Five” gave Randy Jones his full shot in a brilliant solo that lasted for several choruses and brought the crowd to its feet for a long ovation.

Following the concert, when the Brubeck group was back at their hotel for a few hours of sleep before their flight to the next in a series of one-nighters, Smith marveled at his old friend’s stamina a month short of his 81st birthday. “Dave’s amazing,” he said “It’s the music that keeps him going.”

Originally Published