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Rediscovering Dave Brubeck
Rediscovering Dave Brubeck
Rediscovering Dave Brubeck
Rediscovering Dave Brubeck
Rediscovering Dave Brubeck

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Talking With Dave Brubeck

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Brubeck's Trademark Style: Odd Time Signatures, Polyrhythms and Polytonality

Picture of Dave Brubeck playing piano

Dave Brubeck has been a musical pioneer, pushing beyond the traditional forms and standard techniques of American jazz. From the earliest days of Brubeck groups playing in San Francisco in the late 1940s, Brubeck established himself as an innovative and unusual jazz musician using unorthodox techniques such as multiple rhythms, unusual time signatures, and playing in more than one key at a time.

For other jazz musicians and aficionados, these techniques - polyrhythm, polytonality and odd time signatures - became trademarks of Brubeck's jazz style. Brubeck himself understood that they often made his style hard for other musicians to copy. Even some critics have missed the beat of his more experimental ideas.

Take polyrhythm, for example, a technique which involves playing more than one rhythm in the same piece. Brubeck dreamed up this idea as a teenager, riding horseback on the 45,000-acre ranch that his Dad managed. From his perch in the saddle, Brubeck would listen to the rhythmic clip-clop of the horse's hooves and try to think of other beats to play against it in his mind. 'Now the horse may be keeping one rhythm for you. And the you start another one and then think in another one,' Dave explains 'And then you try to think of another rhythm against those. It gets very hard and very challenging, but you have nothing to do - you might as well try things like that.'

Nearly twenty years later, when Brubeck was auditioning musicians for what would become his 'classic quartet,' he was taken with Joe Morello's polyrhythmic drumming. 'Joe Morello can play a rhythm with one foot, another rhythm with the other foot, another rhythm with one hand and another rhythm with the other hand, all at the same time. Four different rhythms,' Brubeck explains. 'When we went to India and they heard Joe in India, they said, 'This is the first Western drummer we've ever heard that motivates us to appreciate what goes on in jazz and Western music.''

The Brubeck quartet's deliberate use of polyrhythm was something some critics didn't understand. Brubeck remembers that the reviews sometimes left him feeling frustrated and misunderstood. 'The first time that I realized people did not know what we were doing was when we played at Carnegie Hall [in 1963] and we got into a tune where we're all in different tempos at the same time,' he tells Hedrick Smith, 'And it was so great! We were able to bring up these polyrhythms and all keep our individual beats going the whole time. The reviewer the next day said, 'The Brubeck Quartet can't even keep time together.' From his point of view, he was right; we couldn't keep time together -- We weren't trying to!'

'Now here's what you're up against when you do something new and people come along that are supposed to review what you've done,' Brubeck adds. 'If they don't have a background, say in African music or Indian music or Greek music or Turkish music, [or] they're what you call jazz purists, they haven't a clue to what you're doing. They don't know how to criticize it.'

It was traveling to other countries and other cultures that prompted another of Brubeck's breakthrough techniques -- the use of odd time signatures. Inspired by Turkish street music and multi-rhythmic African traditions that use 9/8 time and other time signatures radically different from the standard 4/4 rhythm of American jazz, Dave encouraged his quartet to invent new time signatures in their jazz tunes.

Brubeck's push led to the creation of the quartet's breakthrough album, Time Out, named for its use of a variety of odd time signatures. Among the biggest hits were Blue Rondo a la Turk in 9/8 time and Take Five, Brubeck's most famous tune, in 5/4 time. The success of the album proved that although Brubeck's experiment with odd time signatures was a departure from standard jazz, it appealed to a wide audience. Not only did Take Five surge to the top of the charts, but Time Out sold over a million copies and became the first jazz record to go gold.

In addition to experimenting with different beats, Brubeck took his multi-layered playing to a new level through the use of polytonality - the technique of playing in two keys at once. Brubeck describes it as 'superimposing one tonality on the other… putting two or three keys on top of one another.'

He would start out playing a song with both hands in one key -- G for example - and then all of sudden, his right hand might travel up the keyboard and begin playing in B flat, while his left hand remained in G.

The use of two different keys, combined with his other techniques, produced a new sound that audiences had not previously heard in standard jazz. 'Much of the earlier European music was in one tonality,' Brubeck explains. 'We've become so used to that. Gradually musicians and composers wanted to stretch that and get it more complicated.' But as Brubeck remembers, it took some time for his unique approach to catch on. 'I wrote [a piece] for Stan Kenton when I was 22 that had some polytonality, called Prayer of the Conquered,' Brubeck recalls. 'He said 'Bring it back in 10 years.' He thought it was complicated.'

Despite the controversy and criticism that his unconventional style seemed to draw, Brubeck never wavered from following his own path. 'Every individual should be expressing themselves, whether a politician or a minister or a policeman,' Brubeck says. 'What's more important -- to play the way you want to play? Or play the way they want you to play? For me it was more important to play the way I wanted to play. Often it got me fired.'

But Brubeck's unique rhythms and style resonated with audiences. Dave not only won the hearts and loyalties of millions of jazz fans, he created a sound that had cross-over appeal, introducing jazz to new listeners.

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Picture of Dave Brubeck playing piano



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