TIME OUT IS ‘IN’
Author: Bruce Jenkins Date Posted:28 May 2021
If you read a straight-ahead description of Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet, it all sounds terribly serious and highbrow. Recollections of Brubeck’s avant-garde compositional inclinations while a student, his work with French composer Darius Milhaud at Mills College, the unexpected pairing of Brubeck’s inventive, meticulous piano playing with the warm, glowing tones of Paul Desmond’s alto sax… all leading to the startling decision to record an LP of all-original compositions in different time signatures.
For those unused to musical terminology, the time signature tells the musicians how many beats of what note value are in each bar (or unit) of written music. Most rock—and indeed, most jazz—is in 4/4. Four crochet or single-beat notes in a bar, with an emphasis on the first and third: 1-2-3-4. (That’s not entirely accurate, but it gives you the idea.) A waltz is in triple time, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, giving pieces a characteristic flowing, gently swaying rhythm.
The original notes on the back cover of Time Out begin:
Should some cool-minded Martian come to earth and check on the state of our music, he might play through 10,000 jazz records before he found one that wasn’t in common 4/4 time.
There are plenty of other options, and Time Out covers many of them. But does this make it intellectual, cold, and distancing? Not a bit of it! This is one of the most accessible, tuneful and—above all—fun records in jazz. Heck, it even had a hit single!
Opening piece “Blue Rondo a la Turk” sets the ball rolling with a fascinating rhythm that Dave Brubeck came across while wandering the streets of a Turkish town. “There were street musicians playing in 9/8 (1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3)… I thought to myself, boy, when I get home, I’m going to write a tune…”. He did, and it’s rapid loping pulse immediately gets our attention. Of course the melody is memorable too; when Desmond joins in, echoing the simple repetitive melodic figure, there’s a liveliness that smacks of an exotic celebration. And when they start alternating between a bluesy sax figure and the original theme, you know you are in for a surprising and delightful trip.
On “Strange Meadow Lark” you’ll notice the solid underpinning supplied by drummer Joe Morello and Eugene Wright on bass. (Wright, by the way, is not flashy but remarkably solid and reassuring; the perfect foundation for the excursions of Brubeck and Desmond). Then there’s “Take Five”, the hit single mentioned earlier.
Desmond, who wrote the tune, offered this self-effacing insight into the piece:
If the problem of beating time to this disturbs you, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t, a good way is to tap your fingers, one at a time. (One is where the thumb is.) The melody, such as it is, was assembled rapidly in the studio and consisted of fragments which occurred to me here and there, mainly at a slot machine in Reno which produced an ominous but regular series of 5 clicks as the coins vanished. (The royalties from this will have to exceed $47 before I break even but then that’s show biz.)
If, like me, you are a fan of Gary Ross’s fabulous 1998 film Pleasantville, you’ll remember the key scene where Tobey Maguire’s character goes to the Diner and is quizzed by the teenagers about the arrival of colour in their world. And what is playing on the jukebox? “Take Five” by The Dave Brubeck Quartet. The music is superbly in sync with the dialogue; a perfect example of the time, the music, the moment. So is Time Out, an instant classic in 1959 and still delighting audiences today.
Review edition: Music On Vinyl re-issue, 2010.
At the time of publication, Discrepancy also has a superb Columbia Analogue Productions version.
Quotes from cover notes by Ted Gioia (50th Anniversary CD re-issue, Sony Music 2009).
© Bruce Jenkins 2021