1959 was a magical year in jazz, giving us several of the most popular jazz records of all time. One of the most famous of them all, though, was Dave Brubeck’s Time Out which we take a look at in this article.
It’s ironic that one of the most popular and successful jazz albums was originally conceived as an experiment in unusual time signatures.
These days it’s not unusual to hear music in a number of ‘odd’ meters, but in 1959 when Time Out was recorded it was unexpected to hear anything other than 4/4 (often referred to as common time) or 3/4 (known as waltz time).
Despite that, the most successful composition on the album was ‘Take Five‘ by alto saxophonist Paul Desmond… in 5/4 time.
Released as a single, it was to become the highest-selling jazz single of all time despite its irregular beat, and the album was the first jazz LP to sell over a million copies.
So, in a genre where many listeners will confess not liking, or understanding jazz, what is about Time Out that makes it so compelling with such a wide popular appeal?
The answer perhaps lies in how the music was listened to and appreciated.
Many who bought the album would not have been jazz connoisseurs, or more bluntly not really interested the construction of the music but would listen to how the music made them feel rather than in any sort of analytical way.
This is not meant as a dumbing down of the audience; after all, should music not be listened to for pleasure and the uplifting feeling that it elicits?
The success of the album surely falls on the winning formula of some great melodies played by four exceptional musicians whose sum, when playing together, was greater than that of the individual parts.
The leader of the quartet, pianist Dave Brubeck brings a rather unique approach to his music.
With an early background and formal study in classical music, he would later study with Darius Milhaud – the renowned 20th century composer whose own works were influenced by both jazz and Brazilian music.
He developed an uncanny knack of writing counterpoint and harmony, and a skilful understanding and way with musical notation. This skill with harmony would serve him well in later years, and he would develop a unique style as an improviser as well as composer.
With an original sound emerging, Brubeck needed the right musicians to bring his music to life. One of his most important associations was with saxophonist Paul Desmond, with whom he began playing with in 1951.
A light-toned altoist in the West Coast cool style, Desmond had a melodic sense that seemed to flow effortlessly over the Brubeck’s unusual and chord heavy accompaniment. He was also acutely rhythmically aware, and the perfect saxophonist for the pianist’s later forays into unusual time signatures.
From their initial meeting and formation of the first Dave Brubeck Quartet, Desmond would remain with the pianist until 1967.
In fact, so crucial was Desmond to Brubeck that there was a clause in the saxophonist’s contract that he was unable to record with another pianist in any recordings under his own name. Subsequently all of Paul Desmond’s solo recordings would feature a guitarist, often Jim Hall, instead of piano.
The classic Quartet that recorded Time Out began to take shape in 1956 when drummer, Joe Morello joined, and two years later bassist Eugene Wright was recruited.
Brubeck had pitched his ideas for the recording to Columbia Records to whom he was now contracted, but the powers that be took the stance that the group should present something a little more conventional first; Gone With The Wind was recorded in April 1959 with covers of more familiar material.
In June of that year, Brubeck was given the go ahead to return to the studios to record some of his own compositions, and one of Paul Desmond’s titled ‘Take Five‘ that would become the unexpected hit.
The music itself varies greatly, with Brubeck’s sometime heavy handed comping, a swinging pulse from bass and drums and the sweet toned alto of Desmond being a potent combination.
The intricacies in the arrangements and time signatures may have bypassed the casual listener, but it does go to show that great music is great music and does not necessarily need to be accompanied by detailed accounts of its construction to speak to many.
The opening ‘Blue Rondo à la Turk‘ is Brubeck’s take on a Turkish folk tune and the title a play on ‘Rondo alla Turca’ from Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11. The theme is written in 9/8 time, but instead of dividing the beats as 3+3+3=9, the pianist favoured the traditional Balkan subdivision of 2+2+2+3=9.
The resulting piece opens with a heavy rhythmic motif from the pianist’s left hand before being taken up by bass and drums while Desmond’s alto saxophone spins out the melody.
Most unusual and effective, yet powerful and accessible before the tempo falls into the comforting 4/4 for the saxophone and piano solos.
‘Strange Meadow Lark‘ begins with a beautiful piano solo from Brubeck that has no fixed meter, but again reverts to 4/4 when bass, drums and alto enter. Once again, the piece works so wonderfully because of the strength of the pianist’s improvisation and the continued support of the other musicians upon their entry.
Perversely, once he has the support of Wright and Morello, Brubeck’s second solo becomes a little more spiky and abrupt in the phrasing and the chords he uses as accompaniment to his own melody lines.
If forays into different time signatures are not quite as daring as we are originally led to believe, the music continues to be of the highest quality.
‘Three To Get Ready‘ is a cheeky piece that opens in 3/4 waltz time before alternating between 4/4 and 3/4. A similar trick is used on ‘Kathy’s Waltz‘ that opens in common time before easing into a double waltz time.
A little more adventuress and unusual sounding are ‘Everybody’s Jumpin’ and ‘Pick Up Sticks‘ that make a differing use of 6/4, that has a particularly powerful solo from Brubeck.
And then we come to mention that track that is familiar to so many, and perhaps the truest to the concept of the album: played in the tricky 5/4 time signature throughout is Paul Desmond’s ‘Take Five‘.
With that wonderfully controlled, clean crisp opening from Morello, the tone is set for piano and bass to enter, and Desmond to state the melody.
Despite the irregular beat, he floats above the rhythm section as id without a care in the world. The theme statement sounds so natural and relaxed, again one is forgiven for forgetting that the meter should feel a little strange.
Morello gets his moments to shine with a solo that is still attention grabbing more than sixty years later. Packed with incident, brilliant use of dynamics and totally unhurried this is a superlative masterclass in making the drums take centre stage.
And this is how should be. As Desmond was at pains to point out at the time: “It was never supposed to be a hit. It was supposed to be a Joe Morello drum solo.”
Considered controversial at the time of release, it is still a talking point today.
For all his success, Brubeck had his fair share of detractors who had strong opinions about his compositions and his abilities as a pianist and Time Out was dismissed by many critics.
Public opinion, however, was to the contrary ensuring that the album was not only a big seller at the time, but continues to sell well today making it one of the best loved jazz albums of the 20th Century.
- Blue Rondo à la Turk
- Strange Meadow Lark
- Take Five
- Three To Get Ready
- Kathy’s Waltz
- Everybody’s Jumpin’
- Pick Up Sticks
Dave Brubeck (piano)
Paul Desmond (alto saxophone)
Eugene Wright (bass)
Joe Morello (drums)
Recorded: June 25, July 1 & August 18,1959
Label: Columbia Records
Nick Lea is a British jazz writer who has been publishing articles, interviews and news about jazz for more than 20 years. He is editor and writer for Jazzviews.net