My favorite Dave Brubeck album is Time Further Out, which I bought as a teenager for two reasons: one, it had a crazy-looking painting on the cover; and two, it sounded a lot more dangerous and exciting than its predecessor, Time Out. I mean, a time out is what happens when you need to take it easy for a while. But time further out? Whoa, man.
I wound up buying, listening to, sometimes selling back and debating the pros and cons of many of Brubeck's other albums. Jazz: Red Hot and Cool, Jazz at College of the Pacific, Gone with the Wind and of course the hugely famous Time Out all featured the quartet in top form. I even once had a long conversation with my mom, herself never much of a jazz fan, about The Riddle, featuring clarinetist Bill Smith in a series of tunes based on the folk form of "heigh-ho, nobody home."
But over the years, I've kept coming back to Time Further Out. It's one of my "attic records," from a time when I lived constantly half hunched over in a top-floor room with no insulation, when the summer nights were scalding hot and the gin and tonics were ice cold, when living in an attic was made more cosmopolitan, almost glamorous, by the constant clattering of my typewriter in rhythm with the sounds of jazz coming from my turntable in the corner.
You know how a split-second of a song will take you back in time to a place that fades further and further from memory through the years, but which can be brought back in a complete, unbroken wave of recollection by simply putting a needle on a record? That's "It's a Raggy Waltz" for me. Somehow, its bouncy, lithe melody effortlessly conjures an era of my life that was by many accounts dismal. Maybe I liked it back then because it was so hopeful, and maybe I like it now because it helps redden my rose-colored glasses. Either way, it's my jam.
But Time Further Out also succeeds on another level, in that it's a concept album that actually delivers both intellectually and musically. The crazy-looking painting on the cover is Painting: 1925 by Joan Miró, and Brubeck was so enamored with it that he wrote the album as a jazz interpretation of Miró's work. Up in the corner of the canvas, there's a descending line of sequential numerals; Brubeck adopted these as time signatures to use, respectively, throughout the album.
Like Brubeck's best-known tune "Take Five," the songs swing so fluidly that their oddball construction is overshadowed. It was a hat trick employed through much of Brubeck's career, aided by the palatable velvet tones of one of jazz's widely underrated saxophonists, the highly inventive Paul Desmond. Swinging or not, the songs were tough to play; at one point during Time Further Out, you can hear drummer Joe Morello actually laughing at the end of a take, relieved that he managed to get through an excruciating chorus.
Each track on Time Further Out is a variation on the 12-bar blues form, which renders "It's a Raggy Waltz" an unlikely close cousin of, say, Ornette Coleman's "Blues Connotation." Many jazz fans would place Brubeck and Coleman at opposite ends of the spectrum, but what Ornette did for harmony, Brubeck did for rhythm—they both skewed the hell out of convention and made it sound normal, distilling rather than magnifying their music's challenges.
Brubeck has been a pioneer of racial integration, a jazz ambassador and a composer of some of the most complex commercial successes of the postwar era. He's 86 now, and he's just recorded an album of reflective solo material, appropriately titled Indian Summer. Most of the tunes are beautiful standards from Brubeck's youth—"Memories of You," "September Song," "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You"—but stuck almost directly in the middle of the disc is a thunderous, full-bodied original called "Thank You," played as if he were hoping for the whole world to hear his gratitude at having lived such a full life.
After everything he's given to the world, he's thanking us. Crazy.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet perform Saturday, Aug. 25, 2007,as part of the ongoing efforts of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival. Jackson Theater, 4400 Day School Place, Santa Rosa. 8pm. $50–$100. 415.392.4400.