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ClassicsOnline Home » BRUBECK: Songs
Most of us are familiar with only one of the two Dave
Brubecks. The most familiar is the jazz legend, the
father and icon of West Coast ‘cool jazz’, and founder of
the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Less well known, however,
is the Dave Brubeck who studied with Darius Milhaud
(1892-1974), one of the founders of Les Six, who taught
at Mills College after fleeing Nazi-occupied France.
‘Milhaud was a genius beyond genius’, says Brubeck,
‘he had an open house every Thursday night, and he’d
want us to come and jam. . .’. Milhaud, with his La
Création du monde (1923) was one of the first
composers to bridge the gap between jazz and concert
music. It was natural that Dave Brubeck follow suit,
only along the way Brubeck’s monumental jazz career
overshadowed the other aspect of his musical output.
From the jazz classic Strange Meadowlark to the
twelve-tone inspired settings of Langston Hughes’ Hold
Fast to Dreams, to the pop sound of Once When I Was
Very Young…, one is aware of Dave Brubeck’s gift as a
shaper of melodic line. Brubeck’s keen understanding of
the classical relationship of text and music is apparent
throughout this recording. In addition to setting his own
and Langston Hughes’ texts to music, he uses the words
of Iola Brubeck, his wife of 63 years, and their son
Michael to equally stunning effect.
Dave Brubeck’s command of seemingly disparate
and dissimilar musical styles is not only impressive and
unique, but also well known. Perhaps less well known is
his ability to utilise twelve-tone technique on a song
such as So Lonely, a technique that in his masterful
hands produces the musical effect of a softly soulful jazz
I first met Dave Brubeck on 11th April, 2002, my
birthday, at a University of the Pacific concert in which
I sang his settings of Hold Fast to Dreams and Dream
Keeper (ironically, at the same concert hall where he
first set eyes on Iola). After the concert, he asked me,
‘Was that twelve-tone writing?’ I just laughed,
remarking that it certainly took me a long time to learn.
He responded only with a wicked smile and a twinkle in
his eye. This is the quintessential Dave Brubeck … lover
of life, music and family. About a week after that
concert, I began receiving a steady stream of Dave
Brubeck songs in my mailbox and the idea for this
recording was born.
With this recording we are hearing the original
version of The Dream Keeper, heretofore known only as
a composition for four-part chorus. In fact Dave had
originally set Langston Hughes’ moving and
inspirational text as a duet. In So Lonely, Dave Brubeck
begins with a lone vocal line, later joined by the piano
and a second voice, ultimately forming a beautifully
meandering – almost living – fabric of sound. The
flowing, unfolding music of Dave Brubeck, together
with the moving Langston Hughes texts, seems to
conjure a picture of people moving together through this
life toward a common goal.
The centrepiece of this recording is the
unaccompanied Tao, borrowed from The Futility of
Contention of the Tao te Ching, the oldest scripture of
Buddhist Taoism. Dave Brubeck sent his manuscript to
me along with the following handwritten note: ‘This has
been laying around the house for decades and so I
thought I’d send it to you. You could sing it as a duet
with your wife, or she can sing it or you can sing it. You
can change the key if you want to … another option …
throw it in the garbage!’ Needless to say, I did not
choose his last option. He employs the pentatonic
oriental scale as a pedestal for the simple, yet profound
words of Lao Tsu. Using the range of but one octave, his
unhurried rising and falling vocal line seems to mirror
the tenets set forth in the ancient writing.
While giving concerts in Poland in the late 1950s,
Dave Brubeck set Iola’s There’ll Be No Tomorrow. He
treats the lovely but rather melancholy sentiments of the
text with such grace and beauty that the listener is almost
happy to be sad. His soulful Chopinesque introduction
permeates the despair of loneliness, longing and
This recording also captures Dave Brubeck at the
height of his creative powers as an improvisational
pianist. His improvisational accompaniments are so
varied that it often seemed like each take was an entirely
new composition. During the recording sessions, I
frequently became so engrossed in his improvisatory
introductions and bridges that I forgot my entrances.
Once when this happened, he said with that inimitable
twinkle in his eye, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll look at you when
it’s time for you to come in’.
While Dave Brubeck’s jazz compositions have
achieved great fame and well-deserved respect, his more
traditional compositions, though less well documented,
deserve no less esteem. His firm and certain grasp of a
more traditional compositional style is evident in these
Langston Hughes settings. Dream Dust/Hold Fast to
Dreams, for example, though set syllabically,
demonstrates an almost Bellini-like vocal line shape.
Brubeck’s employment of the twelve-tone scale
techniques strikes a genuine unity between the Langston
Hughes text and the poignant, spare accompaniment.
The declamation of the text is never distorted, and the
conclusion is achieved without ever impeding the song’s
flow. He simply succeeds in creating a beautiful song
without drawing attention to how he did it. Throughout
his work, he has remained faithful to the advice of his
teacher and mentor, Darius Milhaud, ‘be true to your
instincts … sound like who you are’.
This collection of Dave Brubeck’s compositions
represents but a small sampling of his solo vocal output.
It does, however, represent a broad musical spectrum
from which he draws to create the Dave Brubeck
compositional language. As he himself has said,
‘There’s a wide range of music you listen to, and you’re
born into. It all reflects on your improvisations.
Everything you’ve heard in your life can, all of a sudden,
pop into an improvisation’ - or a song. . . .
John David De Haan
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