Saturday, October 29, 2016

True Bru

Matching the disposition of his Swiss forebears, my father rocked out to a gentler beat. When he thought "Jazz," he heard in his mind the softer side of Swing: Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw. Bebop and after was a foreign language left to me to reckon with... later.

In the mid-Fifties his (reluctant) military career took us to Turkey, where I proceeded to contract--or so the family legend goes--one of the world's first recorded cases of Asian flu. Whatever it was, my fever kept going up and my body kept drying out, so I was sent to the local military hospital to recuperate. While I was recovering, then, I kept hearing this strange music, rhythmically percussive and sweetly keening, emanating from elsewhere on the floor; and I soon went in search of the source.

What I found was a young airman, quarantined, with his Fifties-style portable record player and a few records by a group called the Dave Brubeck Quartet which he was playing repeatedly. The brief Modern Jazz primer he gave didn't make much of an impression on the 13-year-old rock 'n' roller I was then--I don't even remember for sure which albums he owned--but the exciting sound of Brubeck's live recordings must have stayed with me because when I did begin a rest-of-my-life fascination with Jazz a few years later, the quartet was at the center of my random, uneducated buying.

What I eventually realized was that among the Jazz LPs I listened to most, and I bought scores of Brubeck albums over the decades, were two early live recordings: Jazz at Storyville: The Dave Brubeck Trio and Quartet (Fantasy, with a mostly black record jacket and liner notes by Nat Hentoff quoting poet Wallace Stevens!) and Dave Brubeck at Storyville: 1954 (Columbia, offering a clever newspaper design front and back), the tracks on both of them pieced together from sets recorded at George Wein's Boston nightclub in the early and
mid-Fifties. Youth, joie de vivre, disarranged improvisation, the vivid contrast between Brubeck's Bach-influenced piano (alternatively, his locked-hands power and brutal hammering-on) and Paul Desmond's "dry martini" alto sax, these all became that most excellent rendering of Jazz as "The Sound of Surprise."

Over the decades I played and played and replayed the Storyville LPs, wearing out two or three copies of each. I reveled in the joyful abandon of "Crazy Chris" and the tender beauty (Dave practically alone for 13 minutes) of "You Go to My Head" and "Summer Song/Over the Rainbow"; those were the highlights on Fantasy, while the Columbia LP was just well-nigh perfect, first note to last--"On the Alamo," "Don't Worry About Me," "Gone with the Wind," "Back Bay Blues," "Here Lies Love," and "When You're Smiling"--which I certainly was.

I'm now grinning from ear to ear because some enterprising producer-collector in Europe has gotten his hands on master tapes comprising The Complete Storyville Broadcasts (early 1952 to July of 1954, on the Essential Jazz Classics label)--meaning the music from both LP albums plus another 120 minutes of hitherto unissued tracks of comparable sound and quality; in other words, four years of broadcast recordings now released on three 70-minute CDs. ("Wow" was my stunned response.)

There's some minor repertory overlap with other Brubeck albums (and announcer Hentoff works too hard at being both erudite and amusing), but any Brubeck fan can easily welcome the new old versions of "Stardust," "Undecided," and "All the Things You Are" plus uncommon bongo bashments ("Body and Soul"), frenzied fingerings ("Frenesi"), and rippling reminders of then-recent success ("I'll Remember April" and "I Didn't Know What Time It Was")--a total of more than 40
performances added to the quartet's discography! (Actually, I was at first surprised that some eager Columbia producer hadn't, back then, combined a few of the earlier shorter pieces with the five dated February 7, 1953--"Love Walked In/I'll Never Smile Again," "The Way You Look Tonight," "These Foolish Things," and "Perdido"--in order to create a sequel, Jazz at Storyville Volume 2, say. But once my fan-boy enthusiasm cooled down, I realized that the found performances aren't really as compelling as those used in the original two albums from Columbia and Fantasy.)

No matter, I have them all now. It's been 60 years since the Asian flu brought me to Brubeck, Desmond and, eventually, Boston's Storyville. With this three CD set now as witness, I believe I'm as close as I'll ever be, this side of heaven, to that first magical encounter with something called "Modern Jazz," and with the Brubeck Quartet's exciting version of it.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Who's Left?

Springsteen has a new autobiography out, titled Born to Run (not to be confused with the 35-year-old bi-ography of Bruce of the same title, by Rock critic Dave Marsh). I'll probably buy a copy but I confess I still haven't read the similarly bulky tell-alls of Keith Richards and Pete Townshend (pictured at left). That neglect is partly the result of vision difficulties due to Parkinson's, but it's also a reflection of my increasing indifference to Rock celebrity-hood.

Springsteen snuck in and out of Seattle this past week, a stop on his book tour which I learned about only after the fact. I had seen him on Colbert's Late Show a week earlier, where he appeared oddly subdued and diffident. (Different spotlights make for different stagefrights, I guess.)

At least Bruce's book must offer some solid workingman's politics along with the Rock 'n Roll braggadocio; for example, he's already identified Donald Trump, correctly I'd say, as a "moron"--a judgment I'll bet that Pete Townshend of the Who would also render. Like Bruce, Pete and his lead singer Roger Daltrey were both known for their lippy, working class attitude. When I wrote about them a few years ago, it was in connection with the Who's lengthy masterpiece, the rock opera Tommy. Here's that three-parter revived:

1) Part the First.
2) Part Two.
3) Third Part.