Chris Brubeck’s Triple Play don’t do a show, per se. What they do is they play music, have way too much fun doing it, and you get to watch. These guys really dig playing with each other, and the resulting sense of unbridled joy took the anchor event of Saratoga ArtsFest to a really special place. The good-time vibe was accented by the fact that this was a homecoming of sorts: Triple Play recorded their first disc at Skidmore; Brubeck has done a stint as a visiting professor; and guitarist Joel Brown just happens to be Dean of Skidmore’s music department. The trees on the other side of Zankel’s wonderwall of glass added a lovely environmental element that blended perfectly with Triple Play’s distinctive brand of “roots music.”
Old School Brubeck fans perked up immediately as the trio opened with the semi-ragtime sounds of “Polly,” but jazz is only part of Triple Play’s attack. The too-funked-up-for-words original “New Stew (Opus 2)” is a foot-tapping country-blues breakdown of King Curtis’ “Memphis Soul Stew”, and while their take on Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” may have Cream’s hard-charging tempo, but Brown’s guitar and Peter Madcat Ruth’s harmonica brought the piece most of the way back to the original.
Aside from being one of the best harp players I’ve ever heard, Ruth’s also got a MacGyver streak in him, as exhibited by and ingeniously versatile percussion instrument that’s a cross between a hi-hat pedal and a frying pan. Brubeck was just plain versatile, as he handled piano, fretless bass and bass trombone with equal virtuosity, and Brown cemented his status as the World’s Coolest Dean by playing rock-solid acoustic blues guitar and singing every vocal with a palpable sense of passion and purpose – particularly on his haunting version of the timely-once-again “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”
Triple Play was joined on “Brother” by Brown’s father Frank Brown. An 85-year-old Finger Lakes substitute teacher, he’s a jazz clarinetist who (according to his son) “practices a lot more than I do!” The senior Brown brought wonderful authenticity to the Depression-era classic, and he combined with Ruth to make a truly interesting “front line.” On the mournful “Koto Song” (a Dave Brubeck composition that Chris received an email about from someone in Japan), Brown’s clarinet gave the minor blues a sorrow that reflected what that country is still going through.
The crowd was immediately on their feet and cheering when the composer of “Koto” was led onstage during the second-set opener “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” Dave Brubeck hit 90 this past December, and I’m sorry to report he looks every inch of it. His runs were a little dicey, but those “Brubeck chords” still served him well, and “Turk” was a rousing four-hander before it was done. The senior Brown’s solo was outstanding, He wore a huge grin at the end, earning him a smile and a wave from the senior Brubeck; Brown returned the compliment with a ferocious grin and a shaking-fist gesture that clearly said, “Go get ‘em, Tiger!”
That Brubeck did. He gave us a stunning, classically-based solo instrumental was inspired by his visit to Chopin’s house in Poland; Chris was wiping tears away at the end of the piece. We were all riveted as Dave told a dryly humorous story of how the State Department wouldn’t let the Brubeck Quartet come home from their “People to People” tour of Soviet satellite nations. I watched a girl at least 70 years younger than Brubeck dancing in her seat to “Three to Get Ready.” Dave also dug what Ruth brought to “Take Five” – first with a chromatic harp that gave the tune a Toots Thielemanns quality, and then with a jaw-harp solo that turned into a hilarious trading session with Chris’ fretless bass.
Father’s Day isn’t until this weekend, but Chris Brubeck and Joel Brown got to do what every boy wants to do on Father’s Day: Play “Catch” with his dad. And we got to watch.
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk