Dan Brubeck on Growing Up in a Famous Household, Living in Canada, and Recording a New CD with his Vancouver-Based Quartet
Drummer Dan Brubeck, who lives on the Sunshine Coast, will tour the Island with his Vancouver-based quartet in November to promote his latest CD, The Dan Brubeck Quartet: Celebrating the Music and Lyrics of Dave and Iola Brubeck. The double CD, recorded at The Cellar shortly before it closed, features bassist/vocalist Adam Thomas, saxophonist Steve Kaldestad and pianist Tony Foster. It’s a gorgeous live recording that sheds new light on Dave Brubeck’s compositional brilliance and the unheralded beauty of Iola Brubeck’s lyrics.
Island Jazz recently conducted an email interview with Dan Brubeck. I started by asking him about his childhood and how he ended up in Vancouver.
I’ll give you a brief history of my comings and goings. I was born in Oakland, California – pretty much everyone knows my dad was from the Bay area. We moved to Connecticut, outside of New York City, when I was very young. There were six of us kids and my dad was not getting enough time at home living in California, because he spent so much time traveling to Europe.The move to the New York area cut travel time in half, which allowed him to spend more time with all of us. I think that move was hard on my parents because they’d been in California for generations.
What was it like growing up in the Brubeck household?
People often ask me that. Obviously it was a very different upbringing than most people have had but to me it all seemed pretty normal. All of my brothers are great musicians, and when I was young, we spent a lot of time checking out music and playing together. The house was like a conservatory of music. There were a lot of different bands between all of us brothers and so that brought herds of other musicians around the house. Some of these guys are really successful now like Jerry Bergonzi and John Scofield who was in a high school band that my Brother Chris and I played in.
Then, of course, my dad had a lot of rehearsals at the house and so from an early age I got to hear great drummers like Joe Morello and Alan Dawson. We heard musicians like Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond from a very early age. Eventually we got a chance to work with these guys quite a bit. Of course, when I was really young, I had no idea how great these guys were. They were just friends of my dad that all happened to enjoy playing music together. The fact that they were some of the world’s greatest musicians eluded me at a preteen age.These guys were great mentors to all of us and very patient, I might add. They really encouraged us a lot.
How did you come to live in Vancouver?
I spent time in New York City and around Woodstock, New York, and then I got married and my wife at the time was very California-oriented, so we moved around California, up and down the coast, and wound up near Mendocino. After a few summers on the cold California coast we started getting interested in a warmer climate during the summers at least. Several friends I had mentioned Nelson, BC, and so we got a place there and eventually put our kids in school and ultimately got residency in Canada. Once we had our residency we felt like we needed to be closer to an airport and have more education choices for kids, so we decided to move to Vancouver. After about three years in the Vancouver area, I moved back to Nelson for a little while and then to the Sunshine Coast where I reside now. I think I’ve been in Canada at least eight years now – maybe longer. The physical climate and the political climate I guess is what brought us to Canada initially. I started getting active about moving when George Bush got elected for a second time. At that point I figured the chances of America recovering from that were pretty much zero.
How did the new CD come about?
At some point, I realized that there was a hole that wasn’t being filled, especially in the two family groups I work with. I was interested in doing something different with my dad’s compositions and I really wanted to shed some light on my mother’s lyrical contributions. People were not really aware of her. As it turned out, the bassist that I enjoyed working with so much, Adam Thomas, just happened to be a great vocalist as well. We played a whole lotta gigs together before I figured that out. Once I heard him sing, that opened a lot of doors. It’s kind of like having another gear having a vocalist to add to a jazz quartet. I’d never really done this with my dad’s music before. It is a completely different way of approaching his music. It’s also a very accessible way that adds a different dimension to his compositions.
Was there a particular moment you realized you wanted to showcase your mom’s lyrics?
I guess after my dad passed away, there was so much attention being put on him. My mom had put in an enormous amount of energy as a manager of his group in the early days and as a lyricist. My mom did a lot of the text for my dad’s classical compositions. They were a team in every sense of the word, but she always stayed behind the scenes. She passed away about a year after my dad and it became important to me that people realize that he would’ve had an extremely difficult time without her being behind him for seventy years. When she started to get sick, I felt it was important for her work to be recognized. That’s what prompted me to get a move on and get the CD out. It turns out she wrote quite a bit of the liner notes in her last days.
Why did you decide to do a live recording?
We recorded the CD at The Cellar in Vancouver. Adam had said that we could record our concerts with his portable studio. This was very early on in the project. I think we’d really only done one other gig at that point where we were featuring my mom’s and dad’s work. We realized that we needed a tape to get gigs with and to move the project along. I guess what we didn’t realize was how good it was going to come out. I was certainly happier with the results than I expected. I hadn’t done a live album in a very long time. In 1977 I did a Live at Montreux record with my dad and brothers. As a drummer, live or in the studio doesn’t make a hell of a lot of difference because you really can’t overdub to fix anything anyway. In the studio you lose the audience factor which really helps to generate energy and feeling.
Can you talk a bit about the Vancouver musicians on the project?
First of all, this project would really not have happened without Adam Thomas. I think he did a great job as a singer. He brought a soulful sweetness as the voice of this project. He has a great sense of pitch and doesn’t overplay the singing role. Critics have commented on his unpretentious approach to the music. I think that’s quite refreshing to hear from a jazz singer. I think we were all trying to respect and maintain the integrity of each of these compositions. So, it was not a “Look at me I’m singing kind-of-thing.” He simply was trying to convey the message of each lyric in a musical context.
Adam has a minimalist approach to his bass playing. That’s not to say that he is lacking in any ability, it’s a very musical approach. This is exactly how Gene Wright, the bassist with the Dave Brubeck Quartet approached this music. It certainly worked for them. As my dad used to say, “Someone’s got to hold down the fort.” When you hear Adam solo, there’s no mistaking that this guy’s got a ton of chops.
Steve Kaldestad brings a lot of fire to the group. His sax solos launch the band into another gear. It allows me to pick things up a notch as well and we can then create a lot of energy and excitement. You can hear the history of jazz sax playing in Steve, although his sound is completely original. He is certainly not copying anybody out there that I know of.
Tony Foster is a great pianist. He’s one of the most swinging piano players I’ve ever worked with. Tony has a difficult chair in this band since he’s in my dad’s role, but he manages to keep his identity in a music so associated with my dad’s style of playing. I find Tony’s open style really refreshing and relaxing to play with. It’s great to just fall into a groove and let it sit for a while. Tony is the king of that concept.
I guess I could say for all these guys that you can really hear a lot of history in each of their playing. I really love playing with all these guys.
How did you choose the tunes? There must have been a lot of material given the length of your dad’s career.
When Adam and I started looking at material, we were just looking for things that resonated with Adam. It was important to both of us that he could feel comfortable singing the lyrics and the message the lyrics were conveying. He needed a soul connection with each song, so he could really get behind it and be genuine with the music. There is a lot of music to choose from. Some of the songs which had lyrics we decided just to play as instrumentals, mostly for the reasons I mentioned above.
What were your main goals with this project?
One objective was to have the world hear this great group of musicians that I have the honor to work with. It was also important to me to present this music in Canada in a concert-like situation where people would actually listen and appreciate it. I would love to be able to work in Canada as opposed to flying around the world all the time. I also wanted to have my own group and expand as I go. Play whatever kind of music that pleases me. I think the music we are playing now is really important for people to hear. I also think people are interested in the history of this music. They want to know the story behind its creation and I have a lot of stories to tell.
The band is growing into this music and we are continuing to expand our understanding of it. There’s an amazing amount of depth to it lyrically and compositionally. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of playing it. Of course, it’s always changing and moving and that’s the nature and beauty of jazz improvisation.
Editor’s Note: The Dan Brubeck Quartet plays Hermann’s in Victoria on Thursday, November 12. On Friday, November 13 they appear at the Simon Holt Restaurant in Nanaimo. Many thanks to Kerilie McDowall for setting up the interview.
Jill Townsend Big Band Releases Legacy: The Music of Ross Taggart: Island Jazz Exclusive Interview with Jill Townsend
About eighteen months ago Cory Weeds of Cellar Live Records in Vancouver proposed to Jill Townsend that her big band record an album of Ross Taggart originals to honour Ross who was only forty-five when he passed away on January 9, 2013.
The album was funded as a Kickstarter project and was launched June 30 at two concerts in Vancouver.
Many Islanders helped fund the project because Ross Taggart, who was born and raised in Victoria, was beloved on both sides of the water.
The album, which features some of the west coast’s greatest jazz musicians, can be purchased now at Cellar Live.
I recently interviewed Jill about the project by email. Here’s what she had to say.
IJ: Eighteen months after it began, your Ross Taggart project is finally done and the CD’s are on their way to project donors. How are you feeling now that it’s complete?
JT: Exhilarated, exhausted, satisfied, grateful to have been part of this project, and happy that it’s completed!
IJ: How did the launch in Vancouver go?
JT: The audiences for both shows were very receptive, and the band played beautifully. It was an emotional evening for sure, but here we were, celebrating Ross and his music, and celebrating the final result of this project.
IJ: How do you feel about the recorded results? Any favourite cuts?
JT: I’m very happy with the recording.Thanks to everyone in the band, and of course Chris Gestrin deserves special mention here; he did a fantastic job of recording, editing, mixing and mastering the CD. Each tune has a story of course- Legacy is one of my favourites, and TV Lunch was a tune I thought would work well for big band. Light at the End of the Tunnel is a gorgeous arrangement by Bill Coon, and is one of the highlights for sure. Bill Runge also contributed a lovely chart of Open Book.
IJ: You knew Ross Taggart’s music before, but what discoveries did you and Bill [Coon] make as you dug into the tunes and began arranging them for big band?
JT: Well, the fact that there were so many compositions to choose from to begin with! It was a somewhat difficult process at first to go through the boxes of music, but as we played through his compositions, we chose the tunes relatively quickly that we each wanted to arrange. Ross’ compositions’ are imaginative, colourful, joyous, and poignant. He wrote so many tunes for friends, or an event that took place, or something personal to him. Every note counts in Ross’ music.
IJ: How did your arrangements evolve as you took the charts to the band and started working with them?
JT: My goal for arranging is to have the chart finished and completed to my own liking before bringing it to the band. I’m not a fan of making too many changes afterwards. However, the benefit of rehearsal allows for a few quick fixes or changes. With any large ensemble, the timeline is always tight between rehearsal and performance!
IJ: Tell us about the recording process. How many days, how many takes, etc.? Challenges? Crazy moments? Inspirational moments?
JT: It was just after Christmas when we recorded, and took place over two and a half days, so really only three sessions plus a little extra time. That was challenging in itself, as it’s a busy time for most musicians. We had a lot of music to record in a short amount of time, so the sessions were very focused.Yes, there were some crazy moments for sure, but you know, that’s all part of the process when you have 17 or 18 musicians & personalities in one room!
IJ: You and Cory Weeds decided to go with donor funding through Kickstarter. Having been through it now, how do you feel about that approach to album funding? Do you recommend it?
JT: Absolutely! We had overwhelming response to this project, and being able to donate online made the process easier for contributors near and far, and across the globe. Also, contributors received project updates, so they were involved in the process as each stage of the project unfolded.Thank you to Cory Weeds, and to all of our contributors!
IJ: In the absence of decent government funding for independent jazz projects in this country do you think this is the way of future?
JT: Well, it’s one way for sure, and was a positive experience for us. Grant funding is still available, and as always, musicians have to be resourceful in finding various ways to present their music.
IJ: Any chance of getting the band over to Victoria for a performance of Ross’ music?
JT: Of course, I’d love to bring the whole band over to Victoria! At this point, Bill and I are planning to come over in early 2016 and perform some of the charts with Monik Nordine and the Monday Night Jazz Orchestra.
IJ: What’s next for Jill Townsend?
JT: We’re performing with Dr Lonnie Smith (B3 organ) in December, so I’m excited about arranging some new charts for that project.Planning to record another CD of original music by (guitarist/composer) Bill Coon and myself in the not-too-distant future, and there are a few other things simmering..which will be announced closer to the time. Check out jilltownsend.ca for future performances with the band.
I haven’t reviewed albums for some time on this site but one crossed my desk recently that I feel seasonally inspired to write about.
It’s a wonderful new Christmas album by Victoria’s own Bob Watts Trio recorded in the sanctuary of St. Philip Anglican Church in Oak Bay and featuring the piano work of the sublime and fiery Pablo Cardenas.
Many of you will know that drummer Watts moved to Victoria a few years ago from Winnipeg (although he still spends a lot of time there for business and music) and established a monthly jazz vespers series at St. Philip. During his tenure at the church he’s worked with the likes of Karl Roessingh, Joey Smith, Rob Cheramy, Tony Genge, Bruce Meikle and Tom Vickery.
Watts most often appears with Cardenas and bassist Ross Macdonald in a trio and indeed they are the personnel on Jazz for Christmas 2.
Before you say, ‘do we really need another jazz Christmas album?’ you should know there’s something unique about this one and its companion Jazz for Christmas 1, recorded in Winnipeg in 2010. According to Watts, these are the only two jazz albums around devoted strictly to interpreting Christmas carols.
That’s right, all the other jazz seasonal albums – there must be thousands of them – offer the odd carol but mostly feature arrangements of popular Christmas songs like that old Mel Tormé classic – you know the one I mean.
This new album includes a deeply blue and soulful Silent Night, a lively jazz waltz version of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and a fast-swinging Good Christian People Rejoice which burns along at 220 bpm – a tempo which apparently left Watts exclaiming an unprintable and unreleasable (but humorously appropriate) “Holy s–” when they made it through what turned out to be a gem of a first take.
You’ll want this one on top of your Christmas CD stack. The tunes may be familiar but the arrangements are fresh, original, and deeply swinging.
Whitaker, supported by an A-list of west coast players, delivers the real thing with her signature dark, husky voice that seems made for jazz.
And while that voice thins now and then under the load of these demanding tunes and arrangements, Whitaker makes up for any tonal challenges with sensitive phrasing that respects the lyrics and knows when there should be sound and and when there should be silence.
Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry is a fine example with the gorgeous interplay between her muted trumpet voice and Dwyer’s sweet, supple sax. You’ll also hear it in My Foolish Heart as she plays off rich horn lines and Dwyer’s spare piano work.
Fact is, all the songs on this album are delivered with style, not the least of which are the Stevie Wonder tunes Overjoyed and Creepin’, well-chosen contemporary contrasts to the standards that are at the core of the album.
Speaking of Phil Dwyer, is there a better musical mind anywhere in the country? He, along with the other masterful players he’s recruited, including Brad Turner on trumpet and flugelhorn, Ian McDougall on trombone and Ken Lister on bass, has given Whitaker an expansive musical sandbox in which to play.
Just listen to the percussive fun and excitement on the opening The Song is You and you’ll know you’re in for a treat. This album is a winner vocally and instrumentally.
Note: Sadly the CD arrived too late for me to review it in time for Whitaker’s Victoria show this past weekend, but you can catch her tonight (Wednesday) at The Cellar in Vancouver at 8 pm. And the album is now available on disk or digital download through Whitaker’s website. It would make a great Christmas gift.
There were times last night when I thought the Wayne Shorter Quartet, triggered by Brian Blade on drums, would levitate right through the roof of the Royal and soar into the evening sky.
Blade was that astonishing and they were that good.
Before I say more, a caveat: they weren’t for everybody. The guy beside me, who left early with his partner, held his head sometimes as if in pain.
The dude who thought he was at a rock concert and shouted, “Play Birdland!” was probably disappointed.
One avid jazz fan I know spent the concert making up funny show titles to cope. The one she shared with me was brilliant: “What Fresh Hell Is This?”
But I think it’s safe to say that most of the audience, once they abandoned all expectations of conventional harmonic structure and melody, were dumbstruck. Evidence: the spontaneous standing ovation and shouts for more that erupted at the end of the 90-minute set.
(Note: this was not one of those obligatory standing O’s, where a few people get up, and others, self-consciously thinking they should join in, rise slowly from their seats. This was instant, explosive, and sustained enough to bring the group back on stage for an encore after a long delay).
I confess, I was one of the shouters.
What triggered my response?
It was the ability of these great musicians to create in the moment with pure abandon.
To play as if the pages of their charts were filled with questions.
To play as if they were blank.
To experiment and stumble only to rise on a wave of exalted improvisation.
To perform as if they were discovering music for the first time.
To know where they were going but not know.
To play with deep beauty.
To dare to play with chaos.
To be so fully attuned to each other that at times they were one musician not four.
To spin off into four separate worlds and then awake to each other and come together once again.
To play with humour.
To be deeply serious.
To answer the Birdland dude with the most hesitant and unpracticed of beginnings. (I love it that Shorter felt free enough to make the warming up and tuning of his sax part of the music).
To go crazy (witness Blade leaping off his stool and laughing as he drummed like a madman while John Patitucci’s right hand became a blurr on his upright bass).
To be still and silent and play little or nothing at all.
To love what they were doing so much that it didn’t matter what they were doing.
To play until they could play no more.
Watching these guys was like watching a painting come to life:
Danilo Perez on the grand piano stage right peering at the charts and then looking at the others intently as he sent single notes or extended chords their way and waited for a reaction.
Shorter, standing casually beside the piano in his Indian-style kurta, playing one phrase on his soprano sax and then, enough said, putting it down.
Patitucci swaying and twisting with his bass in the wind of Blade’s drumming.
Blade, stage left, exploding into the most impossible of drum riffs and then settling quietly into the tinkling of a few bells.
This was art, not entertainment.
In its own way the Wayne Shorter Quartet did rise into the night sky.
For those who missed it, here’s a taste from a concert in Vienna: