Brubeck makes up-tempo return; Ticker repaired, pianist keeps beat.
COLUMN: MUSIC REVIEW
WORCESTER - Joined by alto saxophonist and flutist Bobby Militello, bassist Chris Smith and drummer Cody Cox, perennially popular pianist Dave Brubeck kicked off the 16th annual Mass Jazz Festival Friday night with a dynamic concert at Mechanics Hall that served as part of Music Worcester Inc.'s 151st Worcester Music Festival.
With his once jet-black mane of hair now completely white, a frail and stooped Brubeck, who turns 90 on Dec. 6, received a standing ovation from a crowd of more than 1,000 fans even as he was helped up the stairs to the stage. Once seated behind the keyboard of the hall's grand piano, Brubeck told audience members that perhaps they shouldn't expect too much, as Friday's performance was his first since a three-month hiatus spent recovering from cardiac surgery, as well as his first gig with bassist Smith and drummer Cox, who were filling in for the pianist's regular bassist and drummer.
Having said that, Brubeck lit into a Duke Ellington medley that revealed Brubeck has seemingly lost none of his prowess at the piano. He established a solid groove on "C Jam Blues," which featured an impassioned alto saxophone solo from Militello before morphing into an atmospheric reading of Duke's "Mood Indigo." Brubeck kicked it up several notches, tempo-wise, for a rollicking version of "Take the A Train," Ellington's theme song, which had the pianist using big block chords to replicate Ellington's original arrangement.
"Boy, it feels good to be back," a relieved Brubeck said after the medley, a comment that drew a roar of approval from the crowd.
Brubeck went back to the 1920s for a jaunty romp on the old standard "Margie," which he counted off at a medium tempo. Militello contributed another incendiary saxophone solo in the style of boppers Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley before giving way to Brubeck, who countered with a piano improvisation that began with some sketchy chords and evolved into a section of stride piano and several choruses of big block chords underpinned by Smith's booming walking bass line and Cox's drum accents. Incidentally, both Smith and Cox are students at the Brubeck Institute, the pianist's music school at the University of the Pacific in California.
Brubeck toyed with the time on "Keep Travelin'," a blues piece inspired by a poem his wife Iola wrote about a musician's lonely life on the road. Brubeck superimposed a triplet figure over each beat in the 12-bar blues form, a device used by many rhythm and blues musicians, while Militello preached, honked and screamed on his alto saxophone. With bassist Smith and drummer Cox in tow, Brubeck worked up to several choruses of rolling chords that highlighted some skilled re-harmonizations of the three basic blues changes.
For ballads, the Brubeck quartet served up the standards "Over the Rainbow" and "These Foolish Things" plus a surprise - "All My Love," a new Brubeck composition dedicated to his wife. "Over the Rainbow" was basically a duet between Brubeck's delicate piano traceries and Militello's silvery flute licks, while bassist Smith picked up his bow for a dolorous solo on "These Foolish Things."
The audience seemed to enjoy the lyrical and lilting melody of "All My Love" but appeared to lose interest on "40 Days Alone in the Desert," a brooding Brubeck original. There was no mistaking the crowd's enthusiasm, though, when Brubeck pumped out the vamp to "Take Five," a Paul Desmond original from Brubeck's famed "Time Out" album and a blockbuster hit for the pianist in the late 1950s.
The hook for "Take Five" is that it is based on five beats to the measure instead of the usual four used in Western music. Bassist Smith kept the vamp going as Militello contributed yet another searing alto saxophone solo. Brubeck and drummer Cox dominated "Take Five," however, with some bombastic piano-bass playing that ended with a fiery drum solo from Cox before a reprise of the familiar theme.
"Take Five" drew a standing ovation, and Brubeck responded with an unusual encore: A poignant duet with Militello's flute on the children's song "Lullaby (And Good Night)." Welcome back, Dave.