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Dave Brubeck, RIP

by Seth Colter Walls

Dave Brubeck, RIP

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Pianist Dave Brubeck died this morning at the age of 91. His legacy was already immortal, as befits a composer of tunes like "Take Five" and "Blue Rondo a la Turk" (on 1959's Time Out, the first jazz album to ever go platinum), or a leader of West Coast Cool, or indeed any leader of a band as potent as the Dave Brubeck Quartet (which featured Paul Desmond's purposeful but mellow-hued alto sax playing).

Brubeck will be forever be famous for those odd-time-signature tunes (5/4 for "Take Five," 9/4 for "Blue Rondo") that nevertheless feels intuitive and easily grasped. Likewise, he flirted with harmonies and rhythms from 20th-century classical music, which he first encountered as a student of French wild-card composer Darius Milhaud. But he also paid reverence to the jazz canon in exciting ways: His quartet's slashing way with "St. Louis Blues" on At Carnegie Hall is a delight.

The pianist and composer will also be remembered as a popularizing force in jazz history: His albums, pitched to the "college" set in the '50s and '60s, briefly helped to lodge jazz appreciation as a fad properly belonging to the young and inquisitive. The genre has always had artists capable of making this pitch on the aesthetic merits, though few ever proved as successful at actually winning over converts.

Less well known, however, is Brubeck's standing as a questing music-maker beyond these broad-strokes headlines. He is one among what must be a very small number of musicians – and certainly the most prominent – to have collaborated with both Louis Armstrong (who sang memorably on Brubeck's "Real Ambassadors" suite, though "Summer Song" is the real killer) and the avant-garde AACM saxophonist Anthony Braxton (on 1973's "All the Things We Are," for Atlantic).

Brubeck didn't just swipe from classical music in the service of making jazz – he also experimented profitably with classical players. The album Brandenburg Gate Revisited features a suite that places his working band alongside an orchestral arrangement; the New York Philharmonic's then-maestro collaborated with the pianist on Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein; in 2004, pianist John Salmon tackled Brubeck's classical works for piano, including the "Chromatic Fantasy Sonata." These works may not be as immortal as anything on Time Out or his other best-known Columbia releases, but as we celebrate the life and read the obituaries rolling in, it's as good a time as ever to take the long view on an American original's long and fascinating career. See the accompanying playlist for more.