TO Jazz Review: Dave Brubeck Quartet, July 1, Nathan Phillips Square


Once in a great while you may be watching a show of some sort, and at any given moment, maybe even after the show is over, it’ll hit you: you’re witness on this night to something that’s truly special.

On Canada Day in Nathan Phillips Square, there were many moments when I sat in slack-jawed amazement watching Dave Brubeck and his quartet – saxaphonist/flautist Bobby Militello, bassist Michael Moore, and drummer Randy Jones – and even more such moments when they were joined on stage by Brubeck’s son Matthew on cello. But my real “holy sh*t” moment came when I went home and looked up just how old Dave Brubeck is now. And I was struck by this question:

How can a man who’s pushing 90 years of age be that incredibly good, lead a quartet/quintet that incredibly tight, play for nearly two solid hours in the not inconsiderable humidity, and end with two of his most recognizable tunes that were recorded 50 years ago that still, incredibly, sound just as fresh and cool as they ever did?

Brubeck’s list of accolades is ridiculously long. Living Legend Award from the Library of Congress. Presidential Medal of the Arts. The Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame. Named Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. Induction to the California Hall of Fame. It goes on and on. Besides jazz suites, he’s written cantatas, ballet scores, a jazz opera, TV soundtracks and for orchestras and choirs. He’s one of the most influential jazz pianists ever for his improvisations and experiments with different time signatures.

And despite having done all this and being 88 years old, he’s still touring. And his show is, in a word, sensational.

The night started with 2008 Juno-award winner Brandi Disterheft and her sextet, and for an opener, they did not disappoint. Disterheft is an impressive bassist and band leader, her horn player and drummer (who’s names I can’t seem to find anywhere) stood out among the rest of her group as high quality players, and her compositions are lively and compelling. Based on her opening set, I’d definitely like to see her own headlining show sometime.

dave-brubeckBut the night belonged to Dave Brubeck. He entered stage left to a standing ovation, and it was far from the last ovation he would see as the night wore on. He came to the microphone in a bright white suit and in a frail, halting tone, said they’d recently been in Washington DC, where they were celebrating the 110th birthday of Duke Ellington, so they thought they’d play some Duke.

And then they were off. With Jones’s rhythms as the backbone to their sound all night (he only had one solo, right at the end during “Take Five”), Brubeck, Militello, and Moore laid out a brilliant set of West Coast jazz, playing a brief melody, then going straight into the solos. First to solo was usually Militello who, as a very, very large man, looked pretty winded after his solos and would have to go sit down once he was done, but seemed to channel Paul Desmond, the original saxaphonist in Brubeck’s quartet, with ease, and played with a certain genius second only to Brubeck’s. Moore was a joy to watch as he just looked like he was having a hell of a good time all night. He looked like he was mouthing bass sounds even as he played them, stared in rapt attention and occasionally clapped and shouted “yeah!” when other members of the banded soloed, and seemed like he could’ve made his bass stand up and talk if he had a mind to.

Brubeck was the star, of course. His advanced understanding of time signature and love of experimentation and improvisation left the crowd on the edge of it’s seat. Listening to Brubeck solo can almost make you feel uneasy. Every so often for a split second you’ll think “that just doesn’t sound right”; it’s almost as if Brubeck is playing a different song entirely than the one he and his band started, or maybe it’s more like he’s playing two or three songs all at the same time. Brubeck just seems to think music at some higher level, with his solos featuring moments that most of us just can’t fully comprehend, but before we get too confused and start bumping into things Brubeck reigns it back in, lest people’s heads start exploding or something.

It’s an incredible experience to hear him play live. And the crowd at Nathan Phillips Square loved it. I find Toronto crowds generally pretty reserved, even stuffy, so it was a real treat to see them leap from their seats between songs with ovations that just couldn’t wait until the set was over.

Just when it seemed things couldn’t get better, Brubeck went to the microphone and began to tell a story about his son Matthew. He and Matthew had a long talk, he said, about life on the road and why Matthew finally decided to settle down, and Matthew told him life in tour buses is no treat when you’re 6’8 and everyone bumps into your feet when you’re sleeping. So Matthew, he proudly announced, decided to settle down and teach jazz improv to string players at York University, at which point Matthew appeared, cello in hand, to play the rest of the night.

It was a powerful moment, made even better as throughout the night not just Dave but the whole quartet would watch Matthew play with fatherly pride on their faces, and Matthew’s playing was simply sublime.

Finally, Brubeck came to the microphone and talked about the album Time Out, recorded 50 years old, and the song “Three to Get Ready,” how it begins in waltz time, after two bars moves to 5/4 time, and sometimes, as Brubeck puts it, “we improvise in a different time altogether. And sometimes it works, and sounds really good.” On this night, it worked. From there the band went straight into “Take Five,” perhaps Brubeck’s best known tune, and then, suddenly, Brubeck stood up, introduced his band members, one at a time, and was gone, leaving to thunderous applause from a crowd that was, I think, a little shell-shocked at the show they’d just witnessed.

At 88, Brubeck may not be around much longer. If you have the chance, I urge you to see him, a Living Legend if there ever was one, before it’s too late.

Posted on by Brian in Concerts, Toronto Jazz Festival