Back in June when Nippertown last saw ebullient multi-instrumentalist Chris Brubeck, he and his cohorts in Chris Brubeck’s Triple Play – guitarist/vocalist/Skidmore’s Dean of Music Joel Brown and harp player/percussionist/all-around madman Peter Madcat Ruth – were making the Zankel Music Center dance with a little help from Joel’s father Frank Brown (who’s a hell of a clarinet player) and a very distinguished older gentleman named Dave Brubeck.
The younger Brubeck will be back in Nippertown on Friday, when the Brubeck Brothers Quartet warms up for the Newport Jazz Festival with a gig at Gallagher’s Banquet Hall in Cairo. Brubeck was gracious enough to provide the following interview:
You play piano, fretless bass and bass trombone – all with equal amounts of dexterity and creativity. Which instrument did you gravitate to first, and how did the others come into your life?
Because I could whistle tunes and gave other signs of some degree of musical talent, my mom and dad had me start taking lessons when I was five. My father insisted that I start on piano, which actually was NOT what I wanted to play – even at age five, I knew I couldn’t compete with him on that instrument – but my dad’s point was that if I learned to play piano, I would learn to read both clefs, how to notate rhythm, et cetera: Whether I was a great pianist or not, I would acquire the tools to become a proficient musician. In fourth grade in public school in Wilton, CT, I was allowed to choose an instrument for the school band. My oldest brother Darius already played trumpet. My brother Mike played sax, and I was interested in trombone, which became the natural choice. Plus I already really liked the sound of the trombone, since we listened to a lot of Louis Armstrong recordings and he featured Trummy Young on ‘bone. Then a couple of years later, my brother Darius had picked up guitar, and I asked him to teach me some chords. So now I was a budding guitarist, but in about sixth grade Darius asked me if I would play bass in a group with him. I always really liked the bass, and used to play around with Eugene Wright’s bass that was often stored under the piano at our house in California. I couldn’t hold it, so I’d just lie down and hit the strings and groove on the vibrations.
How did the Brubeck Brothers gig at Gallagher’s come about?
Mike DeMicco, our great guitarist, knew of the venue. My brother Dan, the drummer, lives in Vancouver; Chuck Lamb, the pianist, lives in Colorado; I live in southern Connecticut, and Mike lives near Gallagher’s in the Woodstock area. We would all be on the East Coast because we are playing at the Newport Jazz Festival on August 7, so we wanted to do some gigs to get the BBQ juices flowing again.
What is it you get from the Brubeck Brothers Quartet that you don’t get from Chris Brubeck’s Triple Play, and vice versa?
The BBQ is a lot closer to the musical process I enjoyed playing in the Dave Brubeck Quartet for years. It is without question a jazz group, solidly in the tradition of “modern jazz,” a term which is always changing… I like the quote we earned from The Boston Globe a few years ago: “The BBQ brings a new spirit to straight-ahead jazz.” Triple Play represents a lot of my earliest rock & roll days. There is a different direction in the style of the music, a musical territory where blues, jazz, folk and acoustic funk come together; plus everyone in Triple Play sings. Additionally, there also are different skills involved. The art of playing and singing at the same time, often independent lines, is a different challenge that is fun to keep up.
Talk a little about the Zankel Center show in June – how it came about, your impressions of the show itself, and how your father and Joel’s father got involved in the show.
That concert was magical. The folks that organize the Saratoga Arts Festival came to Joel and asked him if Triple Play would perform. Then they asked him if there was any way Dave would join us. I asked Joel if he could get his father to join us on clarinet. Madcat used to play with my dad and my brothers in the Two Generations of Brubeck band in the ’70s. We were very, very lucky Dave and his management gave us that date on his calendar. We were also very fortunate because Dave was really inspired that night and played a lot younger than 90. He is a living history of jazz piano, and all this knowledge and magic flows out of his fingers. It was a great evening of music and inter-generational joy. That quality of music passing from fathers to sons resonated deeply with the audience. They gave tremendous applause to Joel’s dad as well as Triple Play and Dave. It was one of the best concerts I’ve ever been involved in. I should add that Frank Brown sits in with us probably a couple times a year whenever we perform near where he is. It is always a pleasure.
During the show, you told us you’d been a visiting professor at Skidmore, where Joel is the Dean of the Music Department. What do you remember about that experience? Also, do you like being an educator? You really showed an affinity for it during the show, when you broke down the rhythms of “Blue Rondo a la Turk” for the audience.
I liked teaching and was blessed with some REALLY talented students. They taught me a lot, and my two star trombone students gave Senior Recitals that got high marks from the other faculty. One student decided to play my “1st Trombone Concerto,” and extended his range in his senior year so that he could pull it off. My other student didn’t like the available literature, so I wrote her a new sonata which became the basis of my “2nd Prague Concerto.” I also taught some jazz piano to the kids that John Nazarenko couldn’t fit into his schedule. Of course, it was fun to teach electric bass, as well, and I had some really good students in that department. I would drive up once a week, leave at 5 in the morning and teach until 11:30 at night, stay overnight and teach three or four more lessons the next day and then drive 3-1/2 hours home. It was pretty exhausting. Plus I had three teenage kids at home, so I was really burning the candle at both ends. Finally my wise wife Tish said, “You can compose, tour with Triple Play and the Brubeck Brothers Quartet, some gigs with your father’s group, but a fourth career as a teacher is just too much for one person to take on.” She was right, as usual; something had to give, so the teaching was the best thing to let go at that point in my life.
You and Joel and Madcat have more fun onstage than humans ought to have. Has it always been like that for Triple Play?
Madcat and I go back to 1968. It started off being a thrill to make music with him, and it still is. Joel and I are kindred spirits, and we have been making music now for about 20 years. He is really talented as a guitarist, and has a great voice. One of the things that kills me about Triple Play is that we don’t have a drummer, but we swing our asses off. I think you picked up on the fact that Joel’s solid rhythm playing really glues together the band. If any one of the three of us didn’t swing hard, we would be like a three-legged stool with one leg shorter. Joel and I were working with Bill Crofut, the banjo player, (and) he wanted to do a live record at Goshen College. I suggested we add some live fireworks and bring Madcat into the concert. It worked like gangbusters! That recording is called ‘Red, White & Blue’ on Albany Records. When Crofut got cancer, we had contract appearances to fulfill, even though he could not perform anymore. With Bill’s blessings, we went to the presenters and asked if they would accept a performance by me, Joel and Peter Madcat Ruth. The concerts went really well, and the group was so good, so quickly, that it seemed insane not to continue. Even though this particular group was born out of a tragedy with Bill’s illness, it has always had a buoyant quality in its spirit.
You played with the Dave Brubeck Quartet for 10 years before you formed the Brubeck Brothers Quartet. Having played with your dad in his band, what was it like having your dad play with you in your band?
It was great fun. We were playing a lot of music that we knew Dave was very comfortable with. I learned to play those tunes in Dave’s band. My father has a very powerful musical personality, as he gets older it gets lighter. At this point in his career, he welcomes and asks me to jump in and ‘lead’ when it is required. My wife and I are very close to my parents, and we often eat dinner with them, take them to the doctors, etc. We live near each other and are part of a strong support network in our home town in Connecticut.
I was watching your father during “Take Five”, and it looked like he was really digging what Triple Play does with the tune – particularly Madcat’s jaw-harp solo, and that call-and-answer thing you do on fretless bass with Madcat.
Dave had never really heard Madcat play jaw-harp on “Take Five”, so he was indeed digging it. What a contrast: Joe Morello, Alan Dawson, Dan Brubeck, Randy Jones, all great drummers holding the famous rhythm together for “Take Five”, and suddenly here it is – very complex polyrhythmic patterns speeding by on an instrument made famous by hillbillies!
So you’ve got the Brubeck Brothers, Triple Play, and your own classical-music compositions. If someone said, “You can only do one of these,” could you do it? Or is it like having kids, and being unable to say, “That one’s my favorite”?
I couldn’t give up anything I’m involved with. It is very exciting and powerful to play with my brother Dan and the BBQ. Chuck Lamb is an extremely creative improvising force on the piano. He never seems to run out of fresh ideas, and he projects a deep love of music and living in the moment. Mike DeMicco has tremendous knowledge and facility as a guitarist and often amazes me. Dan is one of the most creative soloists on drums in the jazz world. We have a “hard to define” way of playing together that is unique. It comes from hearing Dave’s music growing up, and then on top of that we have a generation of hearing funk and rock subtly flavoring our jazz approach. Triple Play is a joy to play with in another way, which you recently witnessed. I will add that, as a composer, there is sort of a plan. Someday I might feel like live performance is too much for me. My music can be out there even if my body isn’t there. I’ve been in the music business for about half a century and it keeps getting HARDER all the time. We get good fees for our group on paper, but the airlines gets the lion’s share of our compensation. Thankfully, the audience gives us back the juice to keep us going. I’ve been performing for so long that this touring mode is in my blood. I consider it a blessing to have always made my living playing music. I have played in most of the fine concert halls around the world. I have my health, a wonderful wife and family (even grandchildren), and I do feel really blessed. I try to share that joy through my music, in whatever form it takes.
Interview and story by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk