Brubecks play Brubeck, Dorking

Ian Mellor sees three of Dave Brubeck's sons paying tribute to their father and gets some insights into their music and influences

The Brubecks at the Watermill, Dorking. Photo © Brian O'Connor

Three of Dave Brubeck’s children – Darius, Chris and Dan – got together their friend the British saxophonist Dave O’Higgins in 2010. They are once more touring the UK playing their father’s music, this time to celebrate his centenary. The gig at the Watermill was sold out weeks in advance. Not only could we rock along to the brothers playing their father’s timeless recordings and compositions as he would have done but enjoy as well new versions and improvised solos – living proof that great jazz is never played the same way twice.

Their first set opened with Blue Rondo and Kathy’s Waltz from Time Out. A Chris and Dan composition Dance Of The Shadows was next followed by My One Bad Habit Is Falling In Love, with Chris changing from electric bass to a bluesy trombone. Darius told us that this lesser-known tune was written by Dave and Iola after a post-gig chat with their long-time friend Ella Fitzgerald.

The set finished with an incredibly complex drum solo near the end of Jazzanians, written much later by Dave in 1988 for a South African student band. Darius is a natural entertainer and kept the audience laughing between numbers with stories about family history and the other bands the brothers are in. “We love England”, he said, “because it looks so much like England … and we, of course, grew up in New England when our parents moved east from California”. Darius now lives in East Sussex.

From the outset it was clear that the quartet is certainly far more than simply a tribute band. As Chris said, they are a mixture, “a balancing act between our own originals and who we are as musicians and also respectfully playing the Dave Brubeck Quartet music that so many people love”. He went on: “It’s a real mixture. But naturally, having played and recorded with Dad so much, we are really intertwined with his legacy”.

The others agreed. During the interval they recalled what it was like to be the sons of a jazz legend: “We grew up with all of our own influences”, said Dan. “Of course there was Duke Ellington and so many others but we were also hearing Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone giving us different reference points. And we seemed to be playing music before we could even walk. Chris used to play bass lying under the piano when father was playing”.

Lively discussion followed about which tune they would choose from their father’s repertoire if it could only be one: “For me it would have to be Take Five”, said Dan, “although Kathy’s Waltz and Blue Rondo are close behind”. Blue Rondo was top for Chris. “I’ve arranged it for so many different groups”, he said, “and it’s compelling, timeless and indestructible whatever you do with it. Our father brought so many different influences into the jazz melting pot”. Darius chose In Your Own Sweet Way. “It almost has a classic song structure with many different keys”, he said. His own solos were again a mixture of father and son with lots of characteristic block chords but also high-speed single note runs based on Dave’s early love of Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum.

Dave O’Higgins said what a pleasure it was to be in a Brubeck band. “I enjoy playing all the tunes”, he said. “Paul Desmond of course is so distinctive and incredibly meshed in with the Brubeck sound but for me it’s important not to sound like him. I’d only be a poor imitation!” 

Set two began with a tune from Jazz Impressions Of Eurasia featuring Dave on soprano sax. “When I play that I’m usually thinking of Wayne Shorter on Native Dancer”, said Dave later, “or John Surman but on tenor I’m thinking of Dexter Gordon from the 1960s and early John Coltrane”. Dave’s powerful, high-speed journey through those sounds was anything but poor.

Autumn In Our Town by Iola and Dave was next then Koto Song from the album Impressions Of Japan. Darius recalled that for many years his parents had an English secretary, Sally Slade, at their home in Wilton, Connecticut. Sally was in the audience and Darius dedicated the number to her. “We have a photo of the six of us with mother and father and Sally all wearing kimonos taken on a bridge at home”, he said.    

Finally it had to be Take Five, beginning exactly like the original until Dave O”Higgins took it into the world of John Coltrane before the spectacular 5/4 jazz-funk finish. The crowd went wild.

Dave O’Higgins (ss, ts); Darius Brubeck (p); Chris Brubeck (elb, tb); Dan Brubeck (d). Watermill Jazz Club, Dorking, Surrey, Tuesday 10 March 2020