Dave Brubeck (piano) began his Columbia Records association on a second album of material that his quartet had cut during its spring of 1954 tour of North American college campuses, Paul and Dave's Jazz Interwoven (1954) being the first. Joining Brubeck are Paul Desmond (alto sax), Bob Bates (bass), and Joe Dodge (drums), whose support of Brubeck is uniformly flawless, ultimately producing what many consider as the most memorable music in the artist's cannon.
"Balcony Rock" commences the platter from sides documented at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The heavily improvised tune is formed on an eight-bar blues as Desmond steers the combo via his inspired and lyrical leads. The bouncy "Out of Nowhere," comes via a show at the University of Cincinnati and centers on Brubeck's uncanny timing as his passages quickly vacillate between edgy and atonal to decidedly more fluid and melodic. Again, Desmond is nothing short of exemplary as his sax weaves around the rhythm section. "Le Souk" hails from Oberlin College in Ohio and provides Desmond another strong vehicle. His lines tie Bates' prominent propulsions together with Dodge's solid backbeat and Brubeck's similarly aggressive bashing. This takes place behind Brubeck's emphatic and frenetic pounding and garners considerable appreciation by those in attendance. The sturdy bop supporting Duke Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train" is given further fuel thanks to the combination of Desmond's straightforward and unfettered blows and Dodge's punchy interjections. "The Song Is You" is a minor masterpiece as Desmond's efforts resonate his exceptional fluidity. In fact, practically the whole track is marked by his cool, limber phrasing, with Brubeck taking the helm only briefly at the end. The refined and stately reading of "Don't Worry 'Bout Me" reaches far beyond the blues intimated by the sense of forlorn in Brubeck's contributions, thanks to the simple if not austere arrangement. The converse can be said regarding the striking energy of "I Want to Be Happy" as the band leans in hard with a purpose and finesse that can be eloquently summed up in the final phrase as all four members seemingly draw the song to a dynamic and dramatic conclusion.
Indeed the genre gets schooled on Jazz Goes to College, a (dare say) perfect representation of the Dave Brubeck Quartet's pre-Time Out (1959) antics in the preferable concert performance setting.
1 Balcony Rock
2 Out of Nowhere
3 Le Souk
4 Take the "A" Train
5 The Song Is You
6 Don't Worry 'Bout Me
7 I Want to Be Happy
Dave Brubeck - Piano
Paul Desmond - Alto Sax
Bob Bates Bass
Joe Dodge Drums
Recorded on Columbia Label 1954 and this CD issue on Columbia is from 1992 and remains factory sealed.
An absolutely quintessentially essential recording. Lest there be a shred of doubt that in the 1950s there were two alto saxophonists who mattered above all--first Bird and Desmond; after Bird's death, Cannonball and Desmond--let this recording make the case. Paul may have moments of greater excitement, reach even greater heights of inspiration on the earlier "Brubeck At Oberlin," but on no other recording does he dominate so completely yet play as lyrically, thoughtfully, and personally as on this first (and very possibly best) Columbia recording by the quartet.
How can Sony/Columbia have ignored this recording for twenty years, resulting in prohibitive collectors' prices of fifty dollars and up? This was Brubeck-Desmond's greatest period, before the tamer, comparatively sterile and more formulaic studio albums, including "Time Out." Exploring the expansive, exquisitely and climactically structured solos of "Balcony Rock," "Le Souk," "I Want to Be Happy," etc. courtesy of the Columbia Record Club was a revelation to tens of thousands of young people in search of an alternative to Dick Clark's American Bandstand, to Elvis and the Beatles. Listening to these sounds now and comparing them to the music that currently encourages a semblance of the same enthusiasm among college-aged young people is to experience disbelief and incomprehension. How could a group without guitars, chest-thumping amplification, bereft of straggly hair and denim, and providing not so much as a single vocal produce such excitement?
Until I just now discovered this 2008 reissue, I was ready to write off Sony/Columbia and the other three big domestic recording companies. It appears they don't care, don't know, and won't spend an extra dime on anything that won't pay big dividends. Count yourself lucky that for a brief moment the industry felt differently: hence Sony's considerable investment in the near-miraculous digital restoration of "Ellington at Newport '56." (All the same, keep your turntable in playing condition.)
I never appreciated til now the degree to which this is Paul's recording--partly because the makers have rearranged the order of tunes, leading off with his unequalled solo on "Balcony Rock" but also because he's simply sui generis, so much so that Brubeck doesn't even try to follow his masterful solo on "The Song Is You." At the same time, the pianist does score with thunderous lightning bolts on the aforementioned "Le Souk," and he frequently scales down his dynamics to complement Desmond's Only a fool would rush in after the altoist's angelic flight on "Don't Worry About Me," but Brubeck sustains interest while maintaining a more earthbound course with thick chordal textures and building dynamics. Forget all the silly dated descriptions--cool school, West Coast, Konitz-like, unswinging. During this period the Brubeck Quartet commands the listener's undivided attention, and for extensive periods of time, as few other groups, or individual soloists, in the history of jazz. The rhythm section of Joe Dodge and Norman Bates dutifully and gamely "keeps time"--so much the better; this is an instance where a "tight" and ceaselessly "swing machine" approach would have gummed up the works. The swing is generated internally, and rather than the body responding with visceral approval, the mind continually rocks and reels.
Shame on those (including this writer) who ever dismissed this recording as too white, too fay, too square, too distant from hard bop and the African-American tradition in jazz as played out on Blue Note records, as too "square." The music is squarely in the same tradition--extemporaneous, soulful, in the moment, unrepeatable and priceless.
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