Dave Brubeck Quartet featuring Paul Desmond – On the Radio: Live 1956-57 (2008)

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by Nick DeRiso

Masterpieces seem to come at us all at once, like epiphanies and summer storms. But the making of such things is more a journey than a lightning bolt, with ideas and elements to mix and match along the way.

That’s the case with Dave Brubeck’s superlative 1959 effort “Time Out,” a load-bearing wall in the West Coast style of jazz. The way was paved through dozens of nights like the ones lovingly captured during Acrobat Music’s new On the Radio: Live 1956-57.

The initial sessions here take place at the tail end of the tenure of drummer Joe Dodge, who appears on the first 12 tracks during a multi-night stand at the Basin Street Jazz Club in February of 1956. On the Radio is rounded out by three cuts featuring Joe Morello, broadcast live from the Blue Note in Chicago in March of the following year.

Morello, of course, would add another percussive dimension for Brubeck and alto collaborator Paul Desmond, who were already tinkering with space and time inside the jazz structure. Bassist Norman Bates (you’ll understand why he occasionally — no kidding — went by “Bob”) appears on all 15 tunes, but would soon be subbed for Eugene Wright to complete the puzzle.

All of that was, however, still a ways off as On the Radio, which features the original broadcast announcements, gets underway.

There are three separate 1956 appearances in New York City: Tracks 1-5 are highlighted by Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” and a rivalry-sparked run through “Gone With the Wind”: then 6-8 feature Brubeck’s first-ever take on “In Your Own Sweet Way”; and finally Nos. 9-13 include his familiar theme “The Duke” and the Gershwins’ “Love Walked In.” The ’57 date with Morello follows, with a thrilling take on “The Song Is You” to close things out.

Desmond, throughout, is a wonder.

Formalistic and blocky, sometimes maddeningly buttoned-down, Brubeck never sounds better than he does with the transformatively smooth saxist — who reportedly returned the compliment for years by including a line in his contract stipulating that Desmond would not make a record featuring any other pianist.

Lost to lung cancer in 1977, Desmond shared a creative and temperamental friction with Brubeck, but his work always gave Brubeck’s stuff this flowing beauty. He added a reliably earthy romanticism even as Brubeck took some of his initial steps at synthesizing jazz with other, less obviously emotive forms — most particularly orchestral themes, but also standards, ballet scores and opera.

That helped secure a consistent role in the ever-evolving bands of Brubeck, who had earlier recorded in both the octet and trio format with Cal Tjader in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Those lineups didn’t last; neither did the “Time Out” configuration, though they famously returned for 1976’s “25th Anniversary Reunion” on A&M. Brubeck seemed, from the first, a disquieted experimenter — and even “On The Radio,” a far more conventional release, bears that out. Brubeck (who, in his final period, unfortunately has let that restlessness slip into overthinking) was already whittling away at both his own compositions and favored cuts from the American songbook.

This recording includes several tunes that have been reworked from the 1954 Columbia release “Jazz Red Hot and Cool” — notably “The Duke.” “Stardust” had earlier appeared on 1953’s “Jazz at the Oberlin.” A solo version of “In Your Own Sweet Way” later showed up on 1956’s “Brubeck Plays Brubeck,” as did “I’m in a Dancing Mood,” presented during “On the Radio” for the first time.

As cool and sophisticated as these rare shows no doubt are, we know now that they are just the beginning.

Brubeck and Desmond — moments, it seemed, from tossing that first pebble in an artistic avalanche — continued to circle around their work, like boxers looking for an opening. A couple of years later, and a couple of players later, they finally found it with the tempo- and genre-busting explorations of “Time Out.”

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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