Brubeck’s Sounds of the Loop

The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Jazz Impressions of the U.S.A. (UK PHILIPS BBL 7171)

English press of a nifty little item of 1950s jazz from the inimitable Bru and his men. I have a soft spot for Brubeck’s music from this period when the quartet was touring colleges in the US and, I suspect, laying the foundations for a commercially successful career. While I’ve devoted far too much time and energy to collecting all sorts of obscure and outré records of wild free jazz, I also like to reserve some space for a record like this which has oodles of melodic charm and represents the diametric opposite of self-indulgent free blowing. Everything on this record has been carefully composed – even the instrumental breaks probably calculated down to the last half-bar – and what appeals to me is the precision with which Brubeck and all of his sidemen effortlessly put every note and beat in exactly the right place, yet never once sacrifice swing feeling. Plus you’ve got Paul Desmond, responsible for one of the cleanest and sweetest alto sounds ever etched into wax, and his signature sound is instantly recognisable.

I picked this one up attracted at first by the cartoon sleeve. The style of drawing looked familiar, and soon I found the signature somewhere around southern California on the map of the USA. It’s by Arnold Roth. Roth was featured heavily in the pages of Humbug, a magazine venture put together by Harvey Kurtzman in the 1950s. It so happens I worked my way through the two volume restoration set published by Fantagraphics last year, and found myself pleasantly surprised by the inventive and slightly odd drawings of Roth, even if the rest of Humbug‘s humour doesn’t travel and has dated very badly. Roth also contributed to the English humour institution Punch in the 1970s, where his skewed eye had started to render the human frame in a near Dali-esque fashion; elongated, twisted and exaggerated in all the oddest places.

Brubeck’s compositions here are ‘jazz portraits’ of various aspects of the United States – and the idea of ‘musical portraits’ of people or places normally makes me feel sick, but for some reason I’ll forgive this outing, even with a title so unfortunate as ‘History of a Boy Scout’. Everything was composed by Brubeck while on tour, and he took inspiration from what he saw and heard on their travels, in particular the rhythms and drones suggesting by train, tour bus and airplane. “Even the hiss of the radiator in a strange hotel room”, he notes in a moment of existential insight, contributed to the compositional process. Hence every tune ends up like a miniature story, or at least has enough narrative content to make you keep listening, and if its meaning isn’t clear enough just read Bru’s handy explanatory notes on the back cover. You can begin to understand why his music was popular; people prefer stories to abstraction. Roth’s cover drawing has taken a slightly more sardonic view of touring the US; his map of the states is littered with numerous gas stations and roadside cafes, the latter indicated simply by huge billboards lettered ‘EATS’. Another thing that made me buy this was that I suspected that it hasn’t been reissued. Indeed the jazz writer Richard Cook pointed out how Columbia have somewhat neglected Brubeck’s back catalogue in their reissue programmes, while lavishing great generosity on the catalogue of Miles Davis. Of course, it does exist on CD as a quick search of Amazon will reveal. I see the original cover was printed in full colour, where this UK version has settled for monochrome and an overlay of an ugly green ochre tint.

Other details that appeal: the way the entire eastern seaboard has turned into Brubeck’s piano keyboard. The typography of the song titles curving around the coastline. Desmond’s sax blowing smoke, like a peacepipe, oddly decorated with a ship’s figurehead. The Minigroove logo is a nifty combination of cursive typography, with a spiral shape that represents the LP which throws out a straight line to the box marked 33 1/3. Lastly, the back cover is printed with letterpress, once commonplace, now rare.