Sunday, September 10, 2000

At 80, Brubeck takes poignant journey 'Alone'

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The album cover of Dave Brubeck's new solo piano album, One Alone, shows the jazz legend at his own piano. This is where he probed, experimented and sorted out his ideas — before he sat down to save his improvisations for posterity.

 One Alone
 Telarc; 4 stars
 CD $15.99; no cassette
        The intimate solo outing — Mr. Brubeck's fourth — is a rare chance to hear the genius behind a half-century of work that has occurred mostly with other instrumentalists. Telarc released One Alone last month as the appetizer to a yearlong celebration of Mr. Brubeck's 80th birthday Dec. 6.

        The album of 13 classics is a poignant journey; Mr. Brubeck communicates in such a personal way, it's impossible not to be moved. Mr. Brubeck insists his style at almost 80 is not any more emotional than it ever was.

        “You know, you can hear very emotional, personal things back in the '50s, and the '60s and the '70s and the '80s,” he says. “There are 140 CDs, so it covers a lot of different emotions.”

        Yet, “That Old Feeling” is touching and pensive. It's played as if the jazz player was ruminating at the piano in the wee hours of the morning. His trademark chordal style surfaces with a slow, rhythmic pulse and stride technique. But the soft, beautifully voiced chords are never harsh.

        It is clear playing, and technically sure. Mr. Brubeck is, first and foremost, a classically trained pianist. It was after studying with the French composer Darius Milhaud at Mills College in California that he took jazz on a path-breaking journey, introducing complicated meters and far-flung harmonies into the jazz vocabulary.

        So “That Old Feeling” (by Ruth Lowe) moves into surprising harmonic territory, recalling the blues before it gently subsides.

        Some numbers make you wonder if this is an autobiographical album. “I'll Never Smile Again” was recorded by the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1953. Here, the pianist gives it a rhapsodic, nostalgic reading. His lush arpeggios are perfectly calculated to give shape to the piece's expressive journey.

        Certainly, it's full of reminiscences. “Summer Song,” written for Louis Armstrong, has a melancholy tinge behind its simple, summertime haze.

        Melodies are fused into a counterpoint of interweaving lines, and Mr. Brubeck brings out every voice. “One Alone,” from the 1926 Oscar Hammerstein/Sigmund Romberg operetta, The Desert Song, begins simply and evolves into sophisticated variations, including a delicious, jazzy interlude.

        Gershwin's familiar “Someone to Watch Over Me” is fresh and inventive. After an unpredictably jazzy section, it floats away. The mood emerges witty and light in Duke Ellington's “Just Squeeze Me,” a masterpiece of understatement.

        There are many reminders of Mr. Brubeck's sophistication. He revisits an old friend, the 5/4 meter, in “Harbor Lights.” This pretty ballad, sung by Rudy Vallee in 1940, works amazingly well in its 5/4 transformation. “Red Sails in the Sunset” has a tango rhythm in the bass — and is colored by polytonality.

        “Bye Bye Blues” has a clearly marked bass line that strolls slowly straight ahead, then dissolves into a polytonal fog.

        It all makes perfect sense.

        The final piece, “Over the Rainbow,” is the most harmonically adventuresome. It's a revelatory exploration — yet marvelously delicate. It proves that Mr. Brubeck can always find something new to say, even at 80 years young.

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