Dave Brubeck Was Jazz’s Greatest Centrist

Take five – hits from the Brubeck catalog, that is.

Forget politics – jazz demands civility. Like the democratic arena, the world of woodwinds and high-hat cymbals insists on both innovation and the ability to negotiate with others under shifting circumstances. Passing a bill is nowhere near as hard as, say, keeping up with Charlie Parker’s flights of be-bop fancy, or finding one with Miles Davis as he slipped through modes.

Few jazzmen knew how to meld the genre's manic moods as well as ivory-tickler Dave Brubeck, who passed away on Wednesday at the age of 91. Best known for the one song in 5/4 time almost everyone recognizes – “Take Five” – Brubeck charted a path through the thickets of polyrhythm and atonality that sometimes threaten to overwhelm mainstream jazz completely. Bringing together the best of the extremes, he ensured that jazz remained both approachable and challenging. From his early work with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, which he formed in 1951, to his work for “This is America, Charlie Brown,” Brubeck is among the musicians who gave vitality to America’s greatest original musical form.

Here are five recordings that show Brubeck at his best:

1. “Le Souk” with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, 1954.

Yes, there was a time when a jazz album could land a band on the cover of Time. Brubeck and his quintet hit the road in 1954, touring American colleges and universities. The results, including this track, were released as “Jazz Goes to College” later that year. Talk about an education.

2. “Take Five” with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, 1964.

Brubeck and the band offer a flawless rendition of their signature tune in this appearance from the early 1960s. The song in 5/4 time was composed by saxophonist Paul Desmond, and the group first played it live at New York City’s Village Gate in 1959.

3. “St. Louis Blues” with The Dave Brubeck Quartet, 1963.

This track was recorded live during the band’s February 1963 appearance at Carnegie Hall. Called by critics one of the greatest live jazz performances ever captured on tape, Brubeck and the gang are in top form on this interpretation of the W.C. Handy standby – even though drummer Joe Morello was getting over a nasty bout with the flu.

4. “Take the A Train” with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, 1966.

The pianist with his quartet again, this time playing “Take the A Train.” Penned by Billy Strayhorn, the standard will forever be remembered as Duke Ellington’s calling card.

5. Brubeck Improvising With a Violinist.

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In jazz, perfection is about the unanticipated. During a visit to the Moscow Conservatory, Brubeck ended up spontaneously accompanying a young violinist who wasn’t content being just another audience member.