DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today we remember Dave Brubeck, the influential jazz pianist and composer who died Wednesday on the eve of his 92nd birthday. His career lasted nearly 70 years. He was still performing in his 90s.
Brubeck's 1961 album "Time Out" was the first jazz album to sell a million copies, and "Take Five," the album's hit single, was, in the words of our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead, a musical symbol of Kennedy-era optimism.
Terry interviewed Dave Brubeck in 1999. We'll listen to that interview in a few minutes, but first here's Kevin's review of him earlier this year, of some lesser-known Brubeck recordings. Kevin says you could easily forget how many and varied Brubeck's recordings were, even during his 1950s and '60s peak.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Drummer Joe Morello with pianist Dave Brubeck. After Brubeck signed with Columbia in the mid-1950s, his quartet made a few albums a year. By 1959, they were short of material to record, having exhausted their live repertoire. Their album "Time Out" with tunes in odd meters like "Take Five," would point them in a new direction, but it took that stuff a couple of years to catch on.
The album Brubeck made just before "Time Out," "Gone with the Wind," consisted mostly of moldy old tunes, many in the public domain, that the band hadn't played before. It could have been a throwaway, with trifles like "Deep in the Heart of Texas," where Brubeck could get heavy handed. But sometimes his playing is surprising restrained. For me, that's Brubeck at his best.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WHITEHEAD: Saxophonist Paul Desmond on Stephen Foster's "The Old Folks at Home" listed as "Swanee River" on Dave Brubeck's album "Gone with the Wind." His quartet's great success was partly due to Joe Morello's flashy drumming and partly to the contrast between the exuberant Brubeck and the imperturbably serene Paul Desmond.
The alto saxophonist improvised plaintively lyrical melodies with a tangy sweet-and-sour tone. He and Brubeck orbited and influenced each other. Desmond wrote their splashy hit "Take Five," and when he'd quote other tunes in a solo for sport, Brubeck might rise to the bait. Improvising on "Gone with the Wind," Brubeck works in "Have You Met Miss Jones," the "Candid Camera" theme and a few more tunes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GONE WITH THE WIND")
WHITEHEAD: Dave Brubeck with Gene Wright on bass. The quartet's next and biggest album, "Time Out," was partly inspired by rhythms they'd heard touring the world in 1958. After that, it was back to more Stephen Foster and such for the album "Southern Scene" but with fewer sightings of Paul Desmond, who'd weary of the band occasionally.
Confronting other cultures may have prompted the travelers to reassess their own, but then other jazz musicians played Anglo-American traditional themes during the late '50s folk-music boom. Brubeck's quartet would record a few albums inspired by their tours, like the classic "Jazz Impressions of Japan." But the first of them was "Jazz Impressions of the U.S.A." from 1956, with Brubeck's "Ode to a Cowboy." The loping bassist here is Norman Bates.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JAZZ IMPRESSINGS OF THE U.S.A.")
WHITEHEAD: No jazz musician was more urbane than saxophonist Paul Desmond, who sounds as much at home on the rural sketches on "Jazz Impressions of the U.S.A." as on the salutes to Broadway and the Chicago Loop - no surprise, as his tone never varies. Much as Morello's slamming could get on Desmond's nerves, the drummer and the pianist knew how to lay back and set him up. And Brubeck wrote Desmond nice vehicles like the rolling pastoral "Summer Song."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMER SONG")
WHITEHEAD: Before they were world travelers, the Brubeck quartet crisscrossed the American continent, as the toast of the college circuit. Dave Brubeck wrote "Plain Song" on a bus somewhere in western Iowa, and you can hear the road weariness, monotonous landscape and ca-thunk of tires on concrete highway slabs. No wonder this busy quartet's music drew more and more on what they saw and heard on the road. It's like rockers and country singers doing songs about the Holiday Inn. You write what you know.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for A Point of Departure, Downbeat and emusic, and is the author of "Why Jazz?"
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.