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Dave Brubeck at 100: A Take Five Celebration

Stephen Lovekin
Getty Images
Dave Brubeck performing in New York City on July 21, 2009.

Pianist-composer Dave Brubeck was born on Dec. 6, 1920.

His centennial year has brought its share of tributes and closer looks — including a biography, Philip Clark’s Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time (featured in our Gift Guide), and an in-depth essay by Dr. Lewis Porter, (published under Deep Dive).

WBGO will celebrate Brubeck’s birthday on the air this Sunday, as Michael Bourne plays his music on Singers Unlimited, followed by a tribute from Rhonda Hamilton on Sunday Spotlight. And it only seemed fitting to make Brubeck the subject of this early edition of Take Five. Here are five tracks that present a few different views on Brubeck and his music.

“Take Five” (Alternate, 1959)

Chances are, you know the original by heart. So this newly issued alternate take of Paul Desmond’s iconic tune — from Time Outtakes, the first release from Brubeck Editions — is a fascinating study. The tempo is a little brighter, and drummer Joe Morello hasn’t yet streamlined the 5/4 meter; his beat is choppier, less settled, and he takes a more demonstrative solo.

“Brandenburg Gate” (Live in 1967)

Brubeck first featured this song on the 1958 album Jazz Impressions of Eurasia, basing its main melody on the phonetic shape of danke schoen. He would revisit it with orchestral padding on an album released five years later, but as Clark notes in his book, the quartet version is where it’s at. Here is some fine concert footage from ’67; note how Brubeck opens his piano solo in classical formality, before going wild with block chords.

“Koto Song” (Live in 1964)

Ever the musical globalist, Brubeck drew inspiration from a 1964 tour of Japan — swiftly recording the album Jazz Impressions of Japan, whose standout theme is “Koto Song.” Here is the quartet performing it just months later, in Belgium. Brubeck’s delicate pianism is meant to evoke the 13-stringed national instrument of Japan, and Desmond matches the mood with some exquisite work on alto saxophone.

“Lullaby For Iola” 

Lullabies, just out on Verve, is Brubeck’s final studio recording, made as a gift for his grandchildren. And no song on the collection is more personal or touching than this dedication to his wife of 70 years — and, as he once put it, “the strongest inspiration of my life.”

“Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (1996)

Speaking of family, we’ll close here with a short but sweet clip from The Today Show in 1996. Brubeck is backed by his sons — Chris on bass, Danny on drums — as he offers up a Christmas song. Come for the holiday spirit, stay for the rollicking solo (and some postgame banter with Gene Shalit).

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.