Pianist/composer/arranger Bruce Dudley has previously demonstrated his thorough knowledge of one jazz legend’s catalog (Thelonious Monk).
On Sunday, he saluted another, paying homage to the accomplishments and career of Dave Brubeck, the great jazz pianist who died last Dec. 5, just one day short of his 92nd birthday. Dudley led a fine group before a capacity crowd at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. The performance kicked off the seventh season of the Nashville Jazz Workshop’s Jazz on the Move, a series that spotlights the contributions of important jazz personalities.
Dudley had the dual task of both playing and talking about Brubeck’s music. His solos and phrasing on vintage Brubeck pieces offered multiple examples of the great pianist’s famously complex style – including his improvised counterpoint, polytonality, and polyrhythms. There were also personal touches –displayed through the use of inventive, intriguing arrangements and decisive, aggressive phrasing – that showcased Dudley’s musical personality as much as it celebrated Brubeck’s approach.
His band mates proved equally assertive and demonstrative in their roles. Alto saxophonist Denis Solee was careful to strike a balance between the soft, sentimental, sweet tone epitomized by Paul Desmond and a stronger, more blues-tinged feel throughout his statements.
Bassist Roger Spencer and drummer Chris Brown ably executed melodic shifts and negotiated odd rhythms, and while not often called upon for solos, delivered memorable work during occasional spotlight moments.
The opening selection personified the afternoon’s sensibility. The quartet performed a version of “Perdido” that was a nimble balancing act between the frequently more Latin-flavored versions preferred by large orchestras and the more harmonically sophisticated mode that was the Brubeck quartet’s signature.
The same was true for melodic revisions applied to “Stardust,” the ensemble’s intricately voiced collective edge on “The Way You Look Tonight,” and its more animated renditions of “In Your Own Sweet Way” and “The Duke.”
The latter song, by the way, was Brubeck’s tribute to Duke Ellington. Brubeck was on tour with his band in 1954 when he learned that he was on the cover of Time magazine. Ellington was the one who sent Brubeck the good news. Brubeck said later that he thought Ellington should have been on the cover.
Dudley reminded the audience this cover was a source of anger and frustration for many in the jazz community, who felt a white bandleader was being prematurely recognized in a predominantly black idiom at the expense of a seminal African-American figure.
The tune’s sweeping beat and stride piano echoes within the arrangement reflected Brubeck’s love for Ellington’s music, and Dudley’s solo fully expressed that with some of his strongest rhythmic work of the day.
As usual in these programs, audiences got both exceptional musical numbers and insightful historical analysis. Besides Dudley’s extensive breakdowns of both Brubeck’s personal history and pianistic/writing tendencies, the three other musicians each offered their views on what made the additional classic Brubeck Quartet guys great.
Solee cited Desmond’s wit, love of puns and ability to forge a distinctive sound far afield of what other sax favorites in that era (most notably Sonny Stitt and Cannonball Adderley) as keys to his success.
Spencer pointed out the irony of a bassist rooted in Kansas City swing (Eugene Wright) being the centerpiece for a group whose main composer favored unconventional time signatures and metrical arrangements. Brown praised drummer Joe Dodge as the person who enabled Brubeck to become an even more adventurous writer, because he could handle anything Brubeck constructed rhythmically.
The final songs proved their collective points, particularly “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” a song written in 9/8, something that was unusual in the ’50s and still is today. While Dudley and Solee alternated between forceful melodic expositions and delightful exchanges, Spencer and Brown nicely maintained the song’s constantly churning textures.
Of course, there couldn’t be a Brubeck salute without “Take Five,” which was the encore piece and earned the group a second standing ovation. It also gave Brown his prime moment, as he performed a fabulous solo and did something seldom heard in this context.
While Spencer and Dudley kept the song’s framework, Brown executed a dazzling, exciting statement that not only revealed his flair as a drummer, but maintained a connection to the core melody rather than operating outside it or using the solo as a transitional device to link the group back to it. It was both brilliant support and a dynamic individual showcase, two things many drummers seldom combine in a solo situation.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s enormous popularity helped give jazz unprecedented popularity and visibility during the ’50s and ’60s, something that attracted its share of detractors alongside the wave of fans. But as the Dudley group showed Sunday, upon closer inspection, Brubeck’s music, especially when superbly played, champions jazz’s highest virtues (artistry, integrity and individual flamboyance) even as it incorporates influences from other genres.