Sunday, May 31, 2009

Eurasian Impressions... and Mine

I was sick with the flu recently--a strain first diagnosed as Swine but eventually adjudged by the CDC as a different Type-A virus. But it reminded me that back in 1957, when my family was living in Izmir, Turkey, I actually contracted one of the first recorded cases of what came to be known as Asian Flu. This then-mystery illness gave me a hellacious fever, and I ended up dehydrated and then hospitalized, with a tube feeding me liquids.

I survived the new-found bug, obviously. What had a more lasting impact was the curious music I could hear playing somewhere down the hospital corridor... When I recovered enough to wander around, I went searching for the source--which proved to be the room of an airman cooped up with hepatitus, using his portable phonograph to play Dave Brubeck records.

Pretty much clueless at 14, I was at the time a total goner for r&b and rockabilly; Little Richard, Elvis, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, the Johnny Burnette Trio, were some of the cool cats whose discs I owned. So this weird, floating sax-and-piano stuff was a definite stretch.

But I couldn't get the sounds out of my head, and from then on I was a solid Brubeck Quartet fan, first the Fantasy albums I'd heard the airman spin, and thereafter all the popular Columbia releases too. As an AF dependent living overseas, I was especially intrigued that the Quartet had become Jazz ambassadors, regularly visiting many countries around the world. Dave's compositions "Blue Rondo a la Turk" (from Time Out), "The Golden Horn" and possibly "Nomad" (both on Jazz Impressions of Eurasia) were Turkish-inspired; and I felt an unlikely pride of kinship.

What the college fans had experienced when the early Quartet showed up in concert was what I was getting too, a taste of the excitement of improvised Jazz, which gradually led me to explore the recordings of other artists who became mainstays of my listening: Monk, Miles, Bill Evans, Coltrane, Clifford Brown, the MJQ, colossal Sonny, Stan Getz--pretty much all the usual suspects--and eventually Diz and Bird, Duke and Louis and Basie-Pres, from the earlier days as well.

But I never lost my love for Brubeck during the ensuing decades, and when I started writing for late last year, I made a point of reviewing plenty of tracks by Dave, Paul, Eugene, and Joe (and the Quartet's earlier rhythm guys too). You can read a sampling by going here; a search for "Dave Brubeck, Ed Leimbacher" yields a page of published reviews, with seven or eight pertinent to this story.

I tried to convince the boss--critic and author Ted Gioia--that an unexpected and distinctive Brubeck Dozens could be compiled from his innumerable originals, inspired by 60 years of global travel. But Gioia thought the idea too limited and frivolous (or maybe I just didn't convey the possibilities convincingly). Just as critic Doug Ramsey of Rifftides is an expert on Paul Desmond, so too Ted is a major proponent of Brubeck, from years of playing piano himself and of conducting interviews with Dave; and he is somewhat protective as a result.

But I managed to write several pieces that hinted at the possibility of a Brubeck-Around-the-World Dozens. (Maybe someone else will take up the torch.) Meantime, here's the first of two reviews I started but didn't finish--unused variations on that travels idea (with the intended tracks named in the copy):

As the Brubeck Quartet circled the globe--from India to Indiana, Austria to Australia, the USA to the USSR, and with more tours crisscrossing Europe than even he cares to recall--Dave composed dozens of tunes derived from the joys and ills the genial four encountered. A stop in India, for example, produced "Calcutta Blues," a moody piece that actually seems less gloomy than Dave's liner notes propose. (Let us note a passing irony in the nickname Paul Desmond bestowed on Dave--"The Indian"--acknowledging the pianist's part-Native American ancestry.)

Dave's Calcutta is a place of mystery and sinuous sax and cobra-setic drums...

And the second incomplete intro:

From its featured place in The Real Ambassadors, which never got much traction, the tune "Travelin' Blues" emerged as a theme Brubeck returned to occasionally. (Even a seasoned traveler like Dave gets the weary blues sometimes.) This live version recorded with one of his later groups shows a still energetic pianist who keeps on ticketing...

(Okay, so I never pass up a chance for an improvised pun. Maybe I was too frivolous for and its document-the-music mission.)

A Fiftieth Anniversary/Legacy version of Time Out has just been released--offering no outtakes from the studio sessions, but adding a long CD of fine, previously unissued live tracks from that approximate period. I bought a copy immediately, and was especially pleased by the bonus DVD with interview and on-camera solo piano by Brubeck (taped in 2003)--ol' Indomitable Dave, nearing 90 and still playing for people anywhere he can manage to travel to... and touring this summer as "Time Out--Take Fifty."

Beyond Brubeck, what matters finally is that I still crave the ever-renewing "sound of surprise" (as Jazz critic Whitney Balliet named it) that I first heard flat on my back in a Turkish hospital over 50 years ago--and which still lifts me up, sometimes, today.

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