Two for Tuesday special: The Dave Brubeck Quartet

Jazz tunes are generally in 4/4, or common, time: four beats to the measure, the quarter note (or crotchet) getting one beat. Occasionally, you’ll see a tune in 3/4 time, or waltz time (Wes Montgomery’s “West Coast Blues” is a good example). In 1959, pianist Dave Brubeck and his quartet (Paul Desmond on alto saxophone, Eugene Wright on bass, and Joe Morello on drums) decided to flip that paradigm on its head. They went out of their way not to create an album where all of the songs were in common time. The resulting album, Time Out, was a classic.

WGN in Chicago used “Take Five” (our first video) from that album as the theme for its late movie in the Sixties. I was about twelve the first time I stayed up long enough to hear it, and it made a huge impression on me, mostly because I couldn’t figure out where the beats were. I knew enough about music to know that there was something strange about the timing of the tune, but had no idea where to put the beats. I finally learned that it was in 5/4 time, so I knew that you had to count to five rather than four, but still couldn’t do it; the first three beats are syncopated (Dizzy Gillespie said that you can use the line “Who parked the car? I did” to get the beats right) and I hadn’t gotten that far. By then, though, I was hooked.

Many years later I bought the whole album, and the liner notes explained some of the rhythmic patterns. The time signature of “Blue Rondo a la Turk” (the second video) is 9/8, which is like 3/4, where the eighth notes (or quavers) are divided into three groups of three. Here, though, the beats are arranged 2-2-2-3, 2-2-2-3, 2-2-2-3, 3-3-3, and it goes on like that for a few measures before swinging into common time, but with echoes of the 2-2-2-3 pattern spread throughout. I was happy to hear it as the background for Radio Shack’s Christmas commercials a few years back.

I wrote this whole treatise in music theory as a tribute to Dave Brubeck, who died early this morning at the age of 91. He and Vince Guaraldi are the two main reasons I developed an appreciation and love for jazz at an early age.

Rest in peace, Dave Brubeck, your Two for Tuesday for Wednesday, December 5, 2012.

2 thoughts on “Two for Tuesday special: The Dave Brubeck Quartet

  1. I missed this post, John. i’ve been way too busy. the first video is not playing for me, but that could be because I’m in Canada (says it’s a copyright claim). I couldn’t listen to all of the second one. made me agitated. weird but it’s probably because of the timing, as you mentioned.

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    1. The video for “Take Five” had been taken down for everyone. I’ve replaced it, and thanks for pointing that out. Yes, the meter for “Blue Rondo a la Turk” is almost painful to listen to until you get used to it. The middle section is in four, though.

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