Sunday, June 03, 2007

manual dexterity

Photo credit: (C) 2003 Milken Family Foundation

So thing is, and I suppose I should be embarrassed to admit this: I thought Dave Brubeck was dead.

Probably because I think of him as one of those old school boys who I file alongside Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, and loop in a perpetual “jazz masters” playlist when I’m working on a deadline. (All time favorite Dave Brubeck Quartet recording? Buried Treasures.)

So of course it was a treat to learn that he wasn’t, and to snatch up a couple of tickets quick to see him perform, along with his Quartet, Friday night at the Chicago Symphony hall.

Because I came to my realization that he was living late, by the time I learned of my mistake and stopped by the CSO box office the best they had to offer were nosebleed seats in the Mezzanine. But no matter. Turned out we were seated right over the aisle, which meant a view to the stage and its grand piano unimpeded, as well as a clear shot of the usher, curled up like a kitten, taking in Mr. Brubeck and his boys playing Stormy Weather.

But that came later.

First came the Brubeck Institute Jazz Quintet – five young men (and sweet mother of god I mean young – 18, 19 and 20) who are traveling with the Quartet and can play like nobody’s business. (Well, nobody except maybe the Dave Brubeck Quartet.) They played several of their own compositions – Gee Lila, written by sax man Brian Chahley, was particularly sweet – but the set as a whole was mostly a tease for what was to come.

Mr. Brubeck introduced the Quintet and then stood respectfully in the wings for the first half of their first number, bobbing and swaying – and I sat at the edge of my seat, eager and wondering when is he going to play? Had I been duped? Was he just doing the Maestro thing on this one, introducing younger performers who were playing in his stead? Collecting solid revenues on his name without ever giving it up? Had I bought a ticket to hear a college jazz band perform?

I was a little tense. Petulant even. I needn’t have been. Brubeck joined the Quintet on stage during the last number and shared the keyboard with pianist Glenn Zaleski for a riotous round of Blue Rondo. From the moment he laid his hands on the keys something powerful became apparent – he wasn’t just playing, he was directing.

It became even more apparent when he played with his Quartet in the second set. His whole manner – the nod of his head, the smile that permeated his whole self, the way he connected, directed his band mates with the placement of a note, a chord, a phrase – it was masterful, integrated, generous, whole. The word that came to mind was Shine – the way a salsa dancer presents his partner and lets her shimmy and shimmer. Gives her a platform to dance from, gives her all attention, all desire, all delight. And directs the whole audience to do the same.

And those hands. Just to watch them dance along the keys.

When I was in Palo Alto a while back I visited the Cantor Arts Center and spent far too much time in front of a case of Rodin’s studies of hands. The accompanying card said something about Rodin’s quest to make hands as expressive as the face – and of course he succeeded. Because he succeeded in capturing life so brilliantly well, and in life, it’s our hands that tell our story best, that capture so beautifully our rhythms, our pacing, our cadence.

I remember when my father came to town to bury my grandfather; sitting at dinner, telling stories, and watching him punctuate his with a gesture that I immediately recognized as my grandfather’s, as his, as mine. Time stopped for me just then, or rather, seemed limitless, continuous, whole.

Upstairs from Rodin’s hands at the Cantor was an exhibition of Gordon Parks’ photography. A small room to the side housed portraits of notables – the shot of Calder with one of his mobiles stands out in my mind, as do two of Muhammed Ali. Most prominently: the portrait Parks made of Ali’s hands after battle. Wrapped, swollen, worn. The story complete.

Back to Brubeck. What he left me with, in addition to the chance to hear finally Take Five live (Bobby Militello on the sax did Mr. Desmond proud) and realize only too late that I was like a screaming teenager watching the Beatles (in my defense: I only whooped once, and I wasn’t the only one doing it), was the final number, when he brought the Quintet back on, and together they played Take the A Train – integrating the old the new, the young and ancient. Mentors bringing the new boys up in the ranks, presenting them to the world, handing them the torch. Letting them shine.

There was something generous and kind and all together right about it all.

They threw the houselights up full stroke after the final number wrapped, so there was no hope of an encore after the ancient one took his standing ovation.

But Mr. Brubeck gave us one anyway. He walked stiffly out to the piano and sat himself down alone on the stage, playing a sweet and pellucid Lullaby and Goodnight -- inviting us to join in -- before ending on a high note; before saying his goodbye.


anniemcq said...

Oh, this whole post is just amazing.
I'm glad I waited to read it. It was tantalazing me all weekend, but I wanted to wait until I could read it straight through without being called on mommy duty.

What a treat. Thanks.

anniemcq said...

Here's the great thing about getting older.... I didn't recall reading this the first time, and was thrilled to see you had posted something about Brubeck. It wasn't until I got to the end that I saw I'd loved it once before. You are a master with words, my friend.

I've been listening to Time Out all week.

Donna Tang said...

Thank you, Dayna, for this lovely and eloquent tribute to a truly great musician and human being! He was one of the "old guys," but never in his creativity and talent. The first concert I ever went to--in 1958--was his Shakespearean Thunder concert and I can still feel the thrill in my belly!

Kari said...

What a treat to read this this morning. Was just listening to Susan Stamburg talk on NPR about having DB (hey... DB..) in her house, playing her piano and how smitten she was. So, made a cup of Peet's and sat down to read this, having bookmarked it a few days ago. You tell a nice story. The ending gave me chills.

Related Posts with Thumbnails