Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
The little girl in the front row was about my niece’s age, and for most of the Brubeck Brothers Quartet’s two-set performance at Skidmore’s Arthur Zankel Music Center, she’d been having a famously good time – dancing, clapping, spinning, and smiling the biggest smile you ever wanted to see. Then in the second set, just as bassist Chris Brubeck announced the song “Friends Across Time,” the girl burst into tears and loudly announced, “Mommy, I wanna go home!”
Amidst the laughter from the crowd (most of whom were as endeared by the girl’s earlier behavior as I was), pianist Chuck Lamb cracked, “She HATES that song!”
The mother gathered the crying girl up in her arms and started carrying her out of the hall. I looked over at Brubeck, and was surprised to see him caught up in hysterical laughter, holding his bass trombone in his hands. Then he stepped up to the mic and told us, “I think my granddaughter just hit the wall!” Laughter and “Awwwwwwwws” ensued, and the departing girl got what might have been her first round of applause.
Her familial relationship to Brubeck aside, the girl was just physicalizing what the full house had been feeling throughout the night. The BBQ is not a heavy act, in that they don’t try to beat you senseless with labyrinthine free jazz or pitch-dark excursions into the band’s collective Id. They’re about well-played, well-structured contemporary music that’s got light and hope at its center. And that’s no surprise. Anyone who smiles as often (and as well) as Brubeck does is not going to spend a lot of time trying to be jazz’ answer to Arnold Schoenberg; he’s going to give you music that starts inside a big, warm heart and is filtered through the mind of an accomplished educator. And it helps that he’s got three like-minded partners (including drummer/brother Dan Brubeck) who make the package complete.
Noting that “It’s Friday the 13th,” Brubeck told us, “We’re lucky you’re here. We hope you feel lucky to be here, too!” With that, he counted the band into guitarist Mike DeMicco’s “West of One,” a cool bit of Y2K West Coast not that far removed from the music Chris & Dan’s father has been giving us for nearly seven decades. DeMicco served up hollow-body goodness right from the jump, while Lamb comped lightly and Dan painted with brushes. Lamb eventually took the spotlight, keeping things spare but showing an undeniable affinity for the blues, and as he ramped up the energy on this perfect driving-up-Route-1 tune, Dan started dropping more bombs. Chris’ bass was far too low in the mix, but that didn’t seem to effect either his performance or the quartet’s. Realizing that his instrument was still in the background, Chris scatted his solo as he played it.
The soundman finally found the range on the next tune, allowing Brubeck to contribute a conga-esque tone to Dan’s Latin original “Dance of the Shadows.” While the drummer can certainly bring the noise with the best of them, he’s as much of a happier as he is a banger – maybe more. He broke out a bright timbale sound for “Shadows” and Lamb’s new piece “Girl from Massapequa” (which is based on… well, on the song you think it is), and Dan put his own indelible imprint on the Brubeck the Elder classics “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk” – both of which feature iconic drum solos by the late Joe Morello on the original recordings.
I’ve likened DeMicco’s guitar sound to Pat Metheny and John Abercrombie, and there were certainly elements from both guitarists on knife-sharp originals like “Eclipse” and “7th Sense.” But at the end of the day, most of his approach harkens back to the Brubeck the Elder contemporary Wes Montgomery. This link was at its strongest on DeMicco’s lovely, in-the-clear opening to “Kathy’s Waltz,” another DBQ classic that the BBQ not only doesn’t shy away from, but does their best to bring into the next century while showing the original recordings all the respect they deserve. Lamb’s generally tough sound is one of the differentiators on those pieces, but Lamb can get soft and classical, too, as he did in his own in-the-clear moment – a free-cum-classical introduction to “Cool on the Coast.” Lamb also added some tangy electric piano to “7th” and “Take Five.”
Chris may have been still locked into “a great residency” at Skidmore (which he thanked Skidmore artist-in-residence John Nazarenko for making possible), but he broke down the time signature of every piece he announced, as well as inserting little factoids about the piece’s history. Then again, the man is a career educator, in addition to being a hellacious bass player, so that may just be how he’s wired. Either way, his personal warmth and love for the music he plays washed over us in waves suitable for any Pacific Coast beach. The best tidbit came when he told us “Kathy’s Waltz” was inspired by his sister Kathy, who – at a certain age – liked to dance and pirouette around the room all day, every day.
“Was that bad?” Lamb asked.
“It wasn’t good,” Chris giggled, eliciting more laughter from the crowd.
The Brubeck Brothers Quartet wasn’t bad. They weren’t good, either – they were great.
THE BRUBECK BROTHERS QUARTET SET LIST
West of One
Dance of the Shadows
Lamb solo/Cool on the Coast
Girl from Massapequa
Friends Across Time
Blue Rondo a la Turk