Dave Brubeck has always been something like the Rubik’s Cube of the jazz world - immediately accessible, deceptively intricate, and massively popular. The clues to understanding the pianist’s confidently floating lines seems to lie somewhere between his formal complexities and the carefree way his imagination strings phrase after phrase on top of them. This is why Paul Desmond was such a successful sparring partner; in his hands, the sweat-drenched solos of Bird’s alto (which were over the simplest of blues rhythms) tackled interior complications to arrive at exterior cool. In Brubeck’s music, the headier and more heated the proposition, the more effortless its expression appears.
Of course, being endlessly branded with that dreaded asterisk of the jazzerati, "popularity," never mind being told over and over again about his supposed "classical elegance," is bound to make one forget one of Brubeck’s most central qualities: the cat can swing like hell. Ignore the enticement to simply call his music "cool," Time Out was always essentially a "hot" album, a temperature that churned somewhere down in the pianist’s rumbling, two-fisted ostinatos. And that quality is one which his current altoist, Bobby Militello, is intent on making clear in this latest outing for Telarc. Throughout the opening title track, as well as "Randy Jones" (named for the quartet’s drummer), the latter musician is propulsive and bassist Alec Dankworth is precise and self-deprecating, so that Militello can catapult through the changes with a torrid urgency foreign to Paul Desmond’s basic conception. And the reaction elicited from Brubeck is cathartic, the pianist block-chording and hammering downbeats with a joy that he giddily lets ring, as if he’s just discovered the sustain pedal on his instrument. Sticking true to style, however, he lets the gospel-flavored climax of his solo in "The Crossing" resolve itself into a restatement of the theme - a rising and descending eighth-note counterpoint that hides its complexities in the ease of its execution.
To be certain, Brubeck has given up none of the impulse towards formal exploration that garnered so much praise in the early sixties, as seen on the bossa "Day After Day," with its enticing bass figure; a reprise of 5/4 rhythm on "Randy Jones;" or the jubilant latin feel of "Por Que No," which ends up sounding as if it was pulled straight from the Randy Weston Songbook, with its slippery, counterpoint bass line and its self-propelled flight through rhythmic repetition. Particularly striking is Brubeck’s ballad/burner all-in-one, "Mariel," written for his granddaughter. An out-of-time solo piano chorus eventually opens itself to the group, who lavish exuberance on each of its zigzagging corners. Militello and Jones slide along at lockstep pace, the former tossing off one quote after another, the latter centering his attack on his snare. The leader leisurely lets his tricks tumble from his bag during his solo, dazzling in his ease and efficiency. The melody’s jaunty return signals the end of the most breathtaking performance of the day.
Popularity is often cause enough for hard-line jazzers to cart out claims of impurity, at least since the advent of "modern" jazz (1945 and later), and particularly when that popularity arises out of the accessibility of an otherwise intricate artist. For Dave Brubeck, these arguments have historically held little sway, as a musician who compromises his vision only under very specific circumstances - within the dynamic of fellow improvisers attempting to make appealing music out of his knotty-but-not-quite compositions. Certainly, this group understands those goals, and admirably refuses to underestimate the challenges they pose. The "crossing" inherent in this experience, then, is not only a meeting between musical cultures (as posited in the liner notes), but a tricky dialogue between challenge and mastery, pain and pleasure, the creative process and its rewards.