Chris Brubeck, a middle child of the Brubeck clan, plays bass and trombone in a variety of musical styles. He is also a composer, arranger and educator. He was a member of the Dave Brubeck Quartet for over ten years as well as two years with Two Generations of Brubeck (with Dave and brothers Darius and Dan). He grew up understanding and performing music in polytonal and polyrhythmic styles. We asked Chris to explain Dave's relationship with this complicated and challenging kind of music.
By Chris Brubeck
Dave Brubeck was among the very first jazz musicians to introduce and popularize the musical concept of polytonality. Simply put, it is playing in two keys simultaneously. Many times Dave has stated a melody in the original key, then, for example, re-harmonized it by putting the left hand in the original key (often the root and a note a 10th higher than the root in the left hand) and then playing chords with his right hand in a key a sixth higher than the root of the left hand.
The combination of the two keys yields a very interesting kind of harmonic tension. The sound is not harsh and dissonant, but dreamy, free and floating. The music is not anchored to the sound of one key center, especially if care is taken in the "voicing" of the notes (how the notes of the chords are spread across the keyboard). The way Dave uses polytonality, it is more than simply a harmonic device, it is how he can put an innovative twist on old jazz traditions. For example, I've heard Dave play stride piano in a Wild West/Saloon kind of style and suddenly throw his right hand into a different key.
Besides sounding traditional (texturally) and avant-garde (harmonically) at the same time, this technique allows "old fashioned" jazz styles to be reintroduced in an updated way.
In Dave's playing you always hear much of the stylistic history of jazz piano, but you also hear those idioms turned inside out with his own personal twists. In addition to polytonality, Dave employs the concept of polyrhythms. Again, this is the notion that two time signatures can exist simultaneously and both "feels" can live in the same passage of music with fascinating results.
One example of this is what the Dave Brubeck Quartet in the mid-50's to the mid-60's achieved with their approach to the Jazz Waltz. Most jazz and blues, (especially before the Quartet broke so many barriers with "odd" time signatures 5/4, 7/4, 11/4) was in 4/4 time. The drummer usually kept time on the hi-hat by playing on the 2nd and 4th beats of the bar. During the group's revolutionary approach to a Jazz-Waltz, Joe Morello, the Quartet's incredible drummer, would often keep his hi-hat foot playing on 2 & 4, while his hands would "dance" a loose 3/4 pattern on the ride cymbals. Dave as a soloist developed the remarkable ability to drift in and out of 4/4 or 3/4 time feels in his solos.
On many nights I have heard him play with one time feel in each hand, which is sort of the musical equivalent of daring to ride two horses at the same time. The effect is a captivating tension, like a juggler with musical chainsaws. Audiences may not know what is going on technically but they perceive the meter pulls and pushes of the polyrhythmic approach. You will probably not be surprised to know that Dave will often get cooking polyrhythmically and then really spice things up by playing in two keys at once. Polyrhythms and polytonality are just two of many new musical ideas that Dave brought into the modern jazz vocabulary.