You’ve all heard this, it’s the biggest hit Dave Brubeck’s band ever had, only Dave didn’t write it nor does he play a solo. The tune’s cool enough, you’ll hear it and think “Oh, I know that” but actually you probably don’t, it’s an altogether astounding performance and rewards lots of close listening. (“5✭♫” series introduction here; with an explanation of why the title may look broken.)

Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck in 1954

The Context · Dave, born in 1920 and playing piano since 1924, is still living as I write this and I heard a live concert on the radio only a couple of years ago I think; musicians, those that don’t kill themselves with narcotics, tend to be a long-lived bunch.

He fought in the war and studied classical music under Milhaud (!?!?), formed his own band in 1951 and it became really popular right away, Dave was the first jazzbo on the cover of Time in 1954. Among other things, he deserves credit for hiring a black bass player and canceling concerts and TV spots where the promoters had a problem with that.

In 1959 the quartet released Time Out, including Take Five, and it became one of the biggest-selling jazz albums of all time. The word “Time” in the title is not an accident; as a result of Dave’s classical training and his bandmates being, apparently, a bunch of obsessive wankers, most of the record is in weird time signatures and the songs have lots of chord changes that are not exactly jazz-standard.

A few weeks ago I wrote here about Sun Ra, another keyboard player with weird ideas who succeeded partly because he had this great sax player John Gilmore in his band. History repeats itself; when you say “Dave Brubeck” you really mean “Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond”.

The Music · Paul Desmond wrote this tune and provides at least half the magic, but Brubeck gets credit for letting it happen.

Here’s what happens: Brubeck lays down a steady piano vamp in 5/4, a time signature that’s typical of, well, uh, no musical tradition whatever that I know of, then Paul Desmond plays a sax break, then Joe Morello plays a drum solo, then Desmond reprises, then it’s over.

If you follow my advice you’re going to go get Take Five, ideally on a Brubeck CD (it’s uncompressed, it’s yours to do with as you will), but if you really must, in filthy compressed MP3. I’d suggest doing the following: wait till everyone else has gone to bed and sit in front of the speakers or plug in the headphones and play Take Five and listen. That tune will occupy your mind fully the first time, that’s OK, enjoy it, then go back and listen again, carefully, mostly to the rhythms.

Mostly, Desmond’s solo; why does it sound so great? Listen to the sax and the rhythm section behind it; hardly any of the notes are actually on the beat. In the signature theme, the one you recognized, every note leaps slightly ahead of the count it’s supposed to be on, then he shifts to a few measures of right-on-the-beat for the echoing second theme, then when he stretches out, it’s almost all tantalizingly behind the rhythm, except for a couple of key points where he lets it sag outrageously behind.

On the other hand, you could just relax and wonder at how compelling that solo is; but seeing some of the machinery at work under the surface is fun too.

Want more rhythm jollies? Listen to Morello’s drum break between Desmond’s two outings. He takes 5/4 and runs with it, but listen to him gradually unhook from Dave’s foundation and build something quite entirely different.

And then, the ending’s graceful. This recording is one of the artifacts that I’d offer in support of the proposition that Homo Sapiens ought to be spared, because left to ourselves, we create beautiful things.

West African Side-Trip · I gave up my cello lessons two years ago when I joined Sun (it’s an instrument that requires obsessive devotion) but I was unable to throw off my devotion to Euterpe and am now attending hand-drumming lessons from Russell Shumsky; he specializes in the Guinean musical tradition. I have my own Djembe and I’m pretty sure that it and my cello are the most beautiful objects I own.

I plead guilty to really enjoying the deranged hippie new-age kozmick sub-sub-sub-culture of the “Drum Circle” (we have lots in Vancouver) and join in whenever I can. And, well, I’m not a really a very good drummer. But, for a party trick, I can reproduce the Brubeck Take Five piano vamp pretty exactly on my djembe, which makes some people look puzzled but gets big smiles from others. Just saying.

Sampling It · Personally, I prefer to listen to Take Five on my old vinyl Dave Brubeck’s Greatest Hits 33⅓ LP; it appears on a couple of Brubeck CD compilations but all of them seem to lose something in the transfer. Not that they’re not totally great, and there are lots of other wonderful Brubeck tracks, but there’s nothing like putting on that LP and turning up the volume.

But you know, the musical essentials here are so great that they’ll shine through even the musical vandalism characteristic of online music stores. So if you really must, feel free to buy just this one track with my blessing.

author · Dad
colophon · rights

April 17, 2006
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