The jazz pianist Dave Brubeck is widely regarded as one of the great pioneers of cool jazz and, in this article, we’ll be diving into some essential albums from his discography.
Born in 1920 in California, Brubeck had music in his DNA. His mother was an accomplished classical pianist and got him started with piano lessons at age four. His older brothers were also gifted, becoming professional jazz musicians themselves too.
Despite this classical background, the young Brubeck was reluctant to learn to read music, relying on a keen ear that enabled him to pick up melodies and chord progressions with ease.
Fast forward several years and the teenaged Dave Brubeck was performing with local bands to make extra money to support his ultimate goal of going to veterinary college.
Lucky for millions of jazz fans around the world, his university professors – taken with his his enthusiasm and musical – successfully encouraged him to change majors!
Stay tuned for our pick of some of the best Dave Brubeck albums from his extensive catalogue of cool!
Dave Brubeck Octet (1946-50)
The early part of the 1940s had been spent in the army where the young pianist was enlisted to entertain the troops. He formed an ensemble called ‘The Wolf Pack’, a trendsetting band consisting of both white and black musicians during a time when the military was largely segregated.
Whilst not released until 1956, this compilation is made up of some of the earliest Dave Brubeck recordings, taken between 1946-50.
This period marked the end of his time in the army and a chance to study at Mills College in California under famed French composer Darius Milhaud.
It was there that the Dave Brubeck Octet was formed, but the music was too avant-garde for most listeners at the time.
Whilst by no means his most famous lineup, the early treatment of jazz standards such as The Way You Look Tonight and What Is This Thing Called Love? are fascinating listens.
Jazz at Oberlin (Fantasy Records, 1953)
Brubeck’s time in the army during World War Two was crucial in his later success for another reason: it connected him with the alto saxophonist Paul Desmond who would become a long-time collaborator.
The saxophone player’s laid-back approach to jazz improvisation mirrored Brubeck’s and they were natural partners for much of their careers.
Jazz at Oberlin is one of the first recordings in Brubeck’s classic quartet formation, seeing him joined by Desmond on sax, Lloyd Davis on drums and Ron Crotty on bass.
There may be only five songs, but these extended cuts allow the members to swing and improvise at leisure.
The cool jazz favourite The Way You Look Tonight makes another reappearance and is well worth digging out!
These records showcased a musician who was not only pioneering the Cool Jazz sound, but also inspiring a generation of students on campuses across America.
This popularisation of jazz earned Brubeck the honour of being the second jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time magazine in 1954.
Time Out (Columbia Records, 1959)
A list of the best Dave Brubeck albums wouldn’t be complete without this seminal recording which makes most of the ‘best jazz albums of all time’ lists out there.
The seeds of this album actually started a decade before.
Brubeck’s teacher Darius Milhaud in the late 1940s had a deep interest in and compositions with ‘off meters’ (unusual time signatures) and it seems this rubbed off on his young prodigy.
The iconic hit from this album – ‘Take Five’ – not only features the unusual rhythm of 5/4 time (hence the title), it also made its way into the standard jazz repertoire.
Whilst Brubeck didn’t write this track (Paul Desmond gets the credit for that) he contributed the rest of the pieces, which include those in 9/8 and 6/4 time – highly unusual in jazz back then!
Until the late 1950s, the Brubeck rhythm section had been something of a revolving door; this album sees the classic group finally in the studio, with drummer Joe Morello and bassist Eugene Wright locking down the positions.
Regardless of its novel sound, the album was – and still is – hugely popular, becoming the first jazz album to sell over a million copies.
Brubeck & Rushing (Columbia Records, 1960)
This 1960 album is a fascinating concept: matching the measured cool of Brubeck’s classic quarter with blues singer Jimmy Rushing.
The group meet somewhere in the middle, exploring a the cooler side of the blues whilst exhibiting contagious energy.
Hailed by AllMusic’s Scott Yanow as “a surprising success” the 11 tracks give a fresh lease of life to jazz songs by the likes of Irving Berlin, Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing himself.
At Carnegie Hall (Columbia, 1963)
There’s nothing like a live album to capture the nuances and diversity musicians bring when performing in person.
And, as Brubeck’s star continued to rise, what better place to do it than New York’s Carnegie Hall!
This double album is masterfully recorded and features Dave Brubeck’s Quartet at its peak of their powers, capturing rich, extended solos on their most popular repertoire.
The concert was not all plain sailing though; a newspaper strike in the build up to the event caused some concern about low attendance.
Fears were unfounded though and the city’s jazz fans turned out in force to see this legendary Cool Jazz group at work and add to the excitement of this recording.
Live at the Berlin Philharmonic (Legacy Records, 1970)
In a relatively short space of time, Brubeck had gained commercial success and became an international star.
But whilst he recorded almost exclusively with his classic quartet of Desmond/Wright/Morello for more than 10 years, he finally dissolved it in 1967 to work on different projects.
This double disk album – recorded live in Germany – is one example of this, with the pianist bringing in fellow Cool Jazz icon Gerry Mulligan on baritone saxophone for an extended set live in Berlin alongside drummer Alan Dawson and bassist Jack Six.
Together, they provide the solid foundations for Brubeck to interact with baritone sax legend Gerry Mulligan.
The ecstatic audience reaction really adds to the atmosphere of this one!
The jazz legend died of heart failure in 2012, a day before his 92nd birthday, however, Brubeck’s legacy continues to live on to this day.
Over the years, Brubeck had vested himself into a myriad of groups and various styles of music composition.
He received two citations from two Presidents, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a lifetime achievement award from the Smithsonian, and countless other honours.
These Dave Brubeck albums are merely a snapshot of the pianist’s musical genius and are hopefully a great springboard for you to dive deeper into his brilliance as a composer and improviser…
Want to discover more about the greats of cool jazz? Check out our top ten Stan Getz albums or take a look at our rundown of the greatest cool jazz albums and artists of all time.