Saturday, February 22, 2014

Dave Brubeck Quartet -- "Blue Rondo à la Turk" (1959)

The Dave Brubeck Quartet's Time Out -- recorded in 1959 at Columbia's 30th Street Studio in New York City -- was the first jazz album to sell more than a million copies.  (You can click here if you missed the recent 2 or 3 lines that talked about the 30th Street Studio.)

"Take Five," the most famous track from that album, also sold a million copies to become the best-selling jazz single of all time.  "Take Five" took its name from its unusual 5/4 time signature -- good luck dancing to "Take Five," boys and girls -- but today's featured instrumental, "Blue Rondo à la Turk." had an even more complex rhythmic structure: it's in 9/8 time, but mixes 2+2+2+3 measures with 3+3+3 measures.

Time Out consisted entirely of original compositions that used the non-common-time rhythms of the folk music Brubeck's group heard in 1959 while on a tour of Europe and Asia sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.  "Blue Rondo à la Turk" was inspired by a group of street performers playing a traditional Turkish folk dance called the zeybek, which features measures of 2+2+2+3 beats or 3+2+2+2 beats.  

Brubeck (who died on December 5, 2012 -- the before his 92nd birthday) is as lionized a jazz musician as there's ever been, and it's somewhat sacrilegious to offer a discouraging word about his music.  But I have say that Brubeck seemed more concerned with executing a concept than making enjoyable music when he wrote "Blue Rondo à la Turk."

The Dave Brubeck Quartet: Paul Desmond,
Joe Morello, Eugene Wright, and Dave Brubeck
The first segment of the track, which features the 9/8 time signature and is played at a very rapid tempo, is wound much too tightly.  To say that part of the recording doesn't swing is an understatement -- Brubeck and alto saxophonist Paul Desmond are going so fast that it's exhausting to listen to them.

Much of the rest of "Blue Rondo" is played in 4/4 time and at a much more reasonable tempo.  But the last minute or so reverts to a frantic 9/8 rhythm, and the ending almost self-destructs in a frenzied burst of what sounds a lot more like Bartók than cool jazz.

Dave Brubeck in 2009 (aged 88)
Don't get me wrong.  I love me some Bartók -- my wonderful piano teacher had me play a lot of his music because it was loud and rhythmic and often dissonant, characteristics that played to my strengths as a pianist (my power and strong sense of rhythm) and camouflaged my weaknesses (mostly my relatively poor basic technique -- you hardly notice missed notes when a composition is as highly dissonant as many Bartók pieces are).  

I think the first two minutes of this live recording of "Blue Rondo à la Turk" makes my point.  In this performance, poor Paul Desmond is barely able to keep up with the breakneck pace at which the quartet is playing.  His saxophone honks and squeaks rather unpleasantly, almost as if it were protesting the absurd tempo, and even Brubeck seems to have had his hands full just keeping up -- there's no time for any of the subtleties that make a jazz recording great.

Once the group gets to the 4/4 section, everyone seems to relax and you hear some first-rate West Coast jazz.

Here's the studio recording of "Blue Rondo à la Turk":

Click here to buy "Blue Rondo à la Turk" from Amazon:

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