13 December 2008

Time Out Revisited

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Next year will be the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Dave Brubeck's Time Out, one of the classics of the modern jazz canon. Commercially, Time Out was one of the most successful jazz album of all time, reaching number 2 on the Billboard pop album charts in 1961 (the track "Take Five" from the album reached number 25 on the pop singles chart that same year). Two tracks from the album, "Blue Rondo a la Turk" and "Take Five," are now standards of the jazz repertoire. The album itself has a secure place in The Jazz Tradition as one of the quintessential recordings of cool jazz. One critic has gone so far to describe "Take Five" as a tune that "for a lot of people who aren't really jazz listeners defines what jazz is."

But while the commercial success of the album is undeniable, Time Out still suffers from somewhat of a critical indifference, at least if you compare it to the status of other "great" albums that came out around the same time as Time Out. 1959 was a very fertile year for jazz classics, as Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come, and John Coltrane's Giant Steps were also released that year (as were a number of lesser "classics," like Charles Mingus' Blues and Roots). Many of these records are given more prominent places in the pantheon of legendary jazz albums, and all are considered to be important statements in the evolution of jazz. Compared to these other albums, there is little love for Time Out, which is sometimes dismissed as an exercise in time signatures, rather than a work of art in its own right.

Part of this was no fault of Dave Brubeck himself. As Stanley Crouch remembers,
When I was coming up, people either liked Dave Brubeck or they hated him. Now if they hated him, they hated him for a couple of reasons. One, they didn't think he swang [sic]. Two, they thought his conception was garbage. And three, they thought he was getting a lot of attention because he was white.
Crouch makes an important point. During the media fascination with cool jazz in the early 1950s, when Life, Time, and even Good Housekeeping were extolling the virtues of clean-cut, white jazz musicians from the West Coast who were (in their words) saving jazz from the drug-addled excesses of bebop, Brubeck was often cast as the Great White Hope of jazz. This clearly upset many musicians, who felt that the media obsession with Brubeck and other white musicians willfully neglected the artistry of black musicians.1 Brubeck was often a target of black musicians in Down Beat Blindfold Tests around this time.2 Even though many musicians softened on Brubeck later on, a lingering skepticism persisted in the reaction to his music for a long time, which doubtless contributed to the indifference paid to Brubeck by constructors of The Jazz Tradition, who often relegated Brubeck to footnote status.


I first listened to Time Out when I was in high school, still building my jazz collection. When I bought the album, it quickly made its way into my regular listening rotation. Before that time, I had never listened to Brubeck or saxophonist Paul Desmond, and still had not listened to much music considered to be part of the 1950s cool school (sometimes also called cool jazz and/or West Coast jazz). I was quickly drawn to the sound of Desmond's saxophone and his and Brubeck's compositions, none of which sounded like anything I had heard before. However, as time wore on and my jazz library grew, I found myself coming back to Time Out less and less often, to the point where, according to my iTunes, I had not listened to it at all in the past three years until I started working on this post.

This is not because I all of a sudden began to dislike Brubeck, but rather I feel I may have grown out of his music. When I first heard the album, it sounded so adventurous. The album opens with "Blue Rondo a la Turk," a tune written in 9/8 that is played in a delayed four (with every measured grouped as 2+2+2+3/8). The song shifts into standard 4/4 in certain sections, and remains in 4/4 during most of the solo section. It is a well-conceived and well-executed tune, with a wonderful solo from Paul Desmond. The main melody was captivating to my teenage ears. Sometimes I would listen only to the main melody, and skip the solos, so I could break the melody and rhythm down in my head, and explore the song's construction. When I hear the melody today, I am still captivated by it, somewhat in part due to the nostalgia factor of remembering how I felt when I first heard it.

But regardless of that feeling, the song has lost much of its novelty and immediacy in the years since I have first heard it. This is not surprising in retrospect. When I first heard Time Out, I had not yet heard Ornette Coleman, fusion-era Miles Davis, Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett, Charles Lloyd, or a number of other exploratory and/or avant-garde musicians who would push or bend the boundaries of jazz much farther than Brubeck did on Time Out. To put it another way, after hearing The Shape of Jazz to Come, much of the music on Time Out no longer seems so radical. This has to be a large part of the reason why I do not listen to Time Out much at all these days. In high school, the album was like a new girlfriend; I had yet to explore the complexities inherent in the album or learn everything I could from it. Now, the album resembles an ex-girlfriend, in that I focus more on its shortcomings than what I loved about it so much to begin with.


And there is much to love about Time Out. As he so often was, Desmond was in rare form, giving many captivating solos and exhibiting his unique tone on alto saxophone. Desmond and Brubeck were one of the great partnerships in jazz history, on par with Miles Davis and Gil Evans, Charles Mingus and Dannie Richmond, or Bird and Diz. One could just as easily consider this album a vehicle for Desmond as a vehicle for Brubeck's compositions. To quote Crouch, "the combination of the two of them on the same bandstand was better for both of them career-wise and perhaps for the ear of the audience."

However, unlike the other classics of 1959 mentioned earlier, Time Out made no major stylistic statement other than the embrace of nonstandard time signatures. Otherwise, it was a typical effort from Brubeck masquerading as an adventure in style. There is little difference between Time Out and every other album of his that preceded it, save for the unusual times of the tunes. It did not turn jazz on its head as The Shape of Jazz To Come, nor did it distill the essence of tonality the way Kind of Blue did. The album is simply Brubeck being Brubeck, to borrow an overwrought phrase.


"Blue Rondo a la Turk" is the most adventurous tune of the album, with alternation between straight 4/4 meter and 9/8. However, it is also a tune that is prone to the common accusation against Brubeck, that he could not swing. After the melody and bridge are played, the tune switches into a standard blues form for the solo section, with a few detours into 9/8. After Desmond gives a subdued but enjoyable solo, Brubeck enters, and tries to match the mood set by Desmond. However, he overshoots the mark, and his first solo sounds stiff and overly muted. Here the swing feels artificial, and a bit sterile. This is rather unfortunate, since the tune got off to such a captivating start with the weaving melody and solo by Desmond. The band returns with the melody after Brubeck's solo, but the tune never fully recovers. In a way, the tune is a microcosm of the entire album, alternating between moments of joy and moments of tedium.

"Strange Meadow Lark" follows, and it is one of the more conventional pieces on the album, played in straight 4/4 after a rubato introduction. Though there is no overt challenge to convention inherent in the tune, it is nonetheless enjoyable, on par with other tunes of Brubeck's like "In Your Own Sweet Way."

The third, and most notable, track of the album was "Take Five," a bluesy tune set in 5/4 time, which effectively introduced the time signature to jazz. It is the only tune on the album written by Desmond (the rest were penned by Brubeck). It is a brilliantly-concieved tune, which swings as well as any other jazz tune while navigating an assymetric meter. Desmond dextrously works through the tune's head, then lets his haunting tone shine through during a brief but satisfying solo. Brubeck sits out the solo section here, and instead drummer Joe Morello solos over the comping of Brubeck and bassist Gene Wright. Morello keeps things simple (after all, the song's meter is already confusing enough to new listeners), but still commands attention. The tune is an effectively ominous drone, which manages to keep a single rhythm interesting throughout the five-minute tune. The tune also has a certain je ne sais quoi which Infiniti executives misinterpreted to mean "Buy our sedan," but that is a different subject for a different post.

"Three To Get Ready" is the most underrated tune of the album. Shifting between 3/4 and 4/4, the tune is upbeat and joyful, perfectly written for Desmond's sound. Desmond's solo out of the head is among the best he ever recorded, and is one I recommend to anyone who asks me about Desmond. "Kathy's Waltz" follows, and Desmond again carries the day, while Brubeck plays with the time signature in his solo, superimposing a two-beat rhythm on the waltz accompaniment. The effect is fun, and swings rather nicely.

"Everybody's Jumpin'" is a satisfying, if unmemorable swinger set against flurries of block chords by Brubeck. Like much of the album, it suggests something new without lighting the world on fire. "Pick Up Sticks" ends the album on a similar note, bringing the album to a somewhat anticlimatic end following the disruptive beginning set by "Blue Rondo a la Turk." Listened alone, the second half the album does not seem like something scholars would be discussing fifty years later.


The time-signature experiments of Time Out were never extrapolated by anyone else the way Miles Davis' modal experiments on Kind of Blue or Ornette Coleman's breaking of harmonic barriers on The Shape of Jazz To Come were. Perhaps this is why it given secondary position to these other works in The Jazz Tradition. Remove the nonstandard time signatures, and the album is still enjoyable, but is not progressive, in the sense that it did not present a drastically new way of playing jazz for other musicians to draw on and evolve. It is still full of surprises, and presents new layers upon further listening, but in the constructed Jazz Tradition, it does not provide trajectory, save for introducing the music to thousands of suburban college students (which is no small feat indeed). As I wrote earlier, the album suggests something new without lighting the world on fire.

Thus it is not entirely unfortunate that the album is overshadowed by Miles, Ornette, and Trane, but this is not to say it is no less of a work of art. Brubeck may not have reinvented the wheel, but he certainly did not mail it in on this album either. On its fiftieth anniversary, it rightly will be celebrated as an example of the limitless possibility inherent in jazz, and also for the searching curiosity of the music which could build so big a tent as to include it with the harmonic explorations of Coltrane and harmalodic possibilities of Coleman.


Track Listing: Blue Rondo a La Turk; Strange Meadow Lark; Take Five; Three to Get Ready; Kathy's Waltz; Everybody's Jumpin'; Pick Up Sticks
Personnel: Brubeck, piano; Paul Desmond, saxophone; Gene Wright, bass; Joe Morello, drums

Brubeck was well aware of this fact, and, to his credit, was also skeptical of the way the jazz press and mass media sometimes latched onto white jazz musicians in order to present the music in a manner more palatable to white audiences. He was also as aware as anyone of the way in which jazz was sometimes used to gloss over problems relating to race relations, in addition to being an ally of the civil rights movement. See for instance The Real Ambassadors, a musical he wrote with his wife which satired the use of jazz as a foreign policy by the US State Department. In the musical, Louis Armstrong plays a musician visiting a fictional African country who criticizes the contradictory measure of using jazz to promote America as a bastion of liberty and equality while the US government had yet to sufficiently support the efforts of the civil rights movement.
2My favorite example of this is a Charles Mingus Blindfold Test from 1955, in which Mingus says of a Lee Konitz record, "This makes me mad, because it's not jazz, and people are calling this kind of beat jazz. Dave Brubeck gets the same beat." Mingus would retract this comment himself later that year in his Down Beat article "An Open Letter To Miles Davis." In a 1963 interview, Archie Shepp embarassedly remembered telling Lee Morgan that Brubeck was one of his early influences was Dave Brubeck, after which Morgan "really wigged out."


Below is a YouTube of the Brubeck quartet playing "Take Five" in 1961, with Desmond showing off his inimitable style and Morello giving a nice solo evocative of the styles of both Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones.

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