A FEW MORE MINUTES WITH… Chris Brubeck
It was 1995, I was sitting in the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall at the end of intermission, and the Dave Brubeck Quartet was coming back onstage for the second set. The legendary morning radio host sitting next to me smelled like a mash-up of cheap whiskey and stale cheese, and the as-yet-to-be-refurbished seat I’d eased back into was already doing the dozens on my lower back. At that point, Brubeck took the mic and introduced a special guest – his son Chris Brubeck, who would play bass trombone for the rest of the concert.
That wasn’t the first time I’d seen Chris play: His teenage rock band New Heavenly Blue opened for a reunion of the “Take Five”-era DBQ in 1972. That was the first concert I ever went to, and my mom took me to the show.
It was almost 20 years after the Troy Music Hall show when the Brubeck Brothers Quartet left a serious mark on the rain-soaked Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival. Back then, Riverfront rain-out shows were held at the Palace, and while the concession situation wasn’t what it could have been, Chris (along with his brother/drummer Dan, keyboardist Chuck Lamb, and guitarist Mike DeMicco) made the situation undeniably hospitable.
I’ve seen Chris Brubeck play several times since then (both with the Brothers Quartet and the folk-blues-country trio Triple Play), and my respect for him as a player and a leader has grown and grown. He is a true Renaissance man from both an instrumental and a compositional standpoint: He switches from bass to trombone to piano without missing a beat, and shows the same easy, affable vibe whether the night calls for jazz, classical or Americana. It’s a treat to hear him, and it’s a treat to talk with him, and Chris was good enough to take a few minutes from preparations for the Brubeck Brothers Quartet’s concert at 7:30pm tonight (Friday, March 31) at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall concert and help us catch up on a few things:
Q: The last time we saw the BBQ in these parts, you were opening the first day of Jazz at the Lake fest in Lake George. What are your memories about that day?
A: It was a beautiful setting to be playing jazz outdoors with the lake right behind us. But what I remember most was the fact that there was already a very good crowd in the early afternoon. Then I noticed that they were a very intelligent jazz audience. They really listened, and they knew when to give the guys in our band good juice to inspire us to play harder and better. The set felt great, and I had to tip my hat to the festival organizers for building such a marvelous audience over the years.
Q: The Troy Savings Bank Music Hall is the first place I saw you play as an adult in 1995. I won’t ask you to try and remember that particular concert, but what are your memories of playing for your dad at that point in time?
A: I do remember playing your famous hall as a guest of my Dad’s group. After being on the road very intensely with the Dave Brubeck Quartet for a dozen years and doing many recordings, I decided to get off the touring treadmill to spend more time with my own three children, who were in their teens. Dave was doing about 120 gigs a year, and it totally takes over your life. It was terrific to be playing in all of the great halls around the world with such amazing musicians, but I wanted to be with my family more and was starting to do a lot of orchestral composing. Dave was empathetic since he was involved with lots of classical composing, too. Whenever his quartet was nearby he would always invite me to sit in on trombone, which was a blast. Plus I was great friends with my former bandmates Randy Jones, Bobby Militello and Michael Moore, who I recommended to replace me on bass when I left the quartet. We really enjoyed hanging out and playing together. It was a great concert in Troy with another tremendously enthusiastic audience, as I recall.
Q: Prior to getting back on the road with the BBQ, you were performing with ALL your brothers. Aside from when you all toured with your dad in the Two Generations band, was that the first time you’d all played together since the New Heavenly Blue?
A: There is quite a bit of confusing band history to follow. But actually none of my brothers played in New Heavenly Blue. That was me and Peter Madcat Ruth and other fine musicians based out of Michigan. Sometimes we would be hired to join a kind of Rolling Thunder Brubeckian Festival at college campuses with the Dave Brubeck Quartet (with Gerry Mulligan) and a group, Gathering Forces, that my brother Darius, the pianist, led which included my brother Dan on drums. Then Darius moved to Africa for 25 years. Dan eventually started the Digital Dolphins based in Woodstock, which featured Mike DeMicco on guitar, and they were a red-hot band that made three live CDs. Then there was a sort of anti-fusion jazz backlash, and Dan said to me, “Why don’t we start a band that plays more ‘straight ahead’ jazz than fusion?” Mike DeMicco is a great straight-ahead bebop player who cut his teeth on many gigs, and learned so much from local sax legend Nick Brignola. The Brubeck Brothers Quartet started in the late ’90s when we added a pianist to the roster. Chuck Lamb has been playing great keys with us since about 2002.
Q: You can learn a lot from Facebook: You celebrated a birthday recently, and I discovered (because you’re both FB friends with me) that you have the same birthday as Joel Brown, one of your partners in Triple Play. When did you find that out, and do you guys do anything special on your joint birthday? Also, can we expect another Triple Play show up here any time soon?
A: Joel Brown and I found out we were born on the same day when we were at our friend’s house, the innovative banjo player Bill Crofut. We made several CDs for Albany Records. When we were together at Bill’s house rehearsing for a recording session, Bill’s wife cooked up a big lobster dinner, which I thought was in my honor since I had known Bill since I was about 10 years old. They sang the “Happy Birthday Song,” and when they got to the second to last line they sang, “Happy Birthday, dear Joel!” That is how I found out, and it still makes me laugh. Joel Brown, Peter Madcat Ruth and I are what we call Triple Play, and we still have a ball playing together and sending each other the most ridiculous cards possible on our birthdays. Madcat’s birthday is April 2nd, so his is coming up soon. So is a gig at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs on July 14th.
Q: The BBQ played with Chamber Orchestra of the Springs in Colorado earlier this year. Is that something we’re going to see at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall – not necessarily with that group, but with another string ensemble?
A: That is the kind of thing that we would love to do someday. Or even play with the Albany Symphony, or the Imani Winds at a place like the Maverick Concert Series in Woodstock. We do these kinds of mixed classical/jazz all over the place; it just depends on who you happen to know. Last year, we were asked to close The Berks Jazz Festival down in Reading, PA, working with their orchestra. It takes someone with vision in the orchestral world that wants to do a jazz concert. We’ve been doing this, and I have been writing charts for years. We are continuing something that Dave Brubeck pioneered with Leonard Bernstein in the ’60s: A jazz quartet improvising in front of an orchestra. This is what Gunther Schuller referred to as “3rd Stream Music.” I’ve written a piece for the Muir String Quartet, a guitar concerto for Sharon Isbin (which is being played with the Detroit Symphony and conducted by Leonard Slatkin next week) and am currently working on a commission to compose a concerto for the Canadian Brass and Orchestra. Inevitably, all the happy worlds I live in will collide and something musically exciting will emerge.
Q: When you combine this group with strings – be it in concert or in the studio – what’s your general approach? Do you become a conductor in addition to everything else you do with the Brothers Quartet, or do the strings just incorporate themselves into the unit?
A: There is a great Grammy-nominated string quartet on the West Coast called Quartet San Francisco, and we have been talking for years about writing a piece for string quartet and jazz quartet – kind of parallel to the piece I wrote for woodwind quintet and the Brubeck Brothers Quartet called “Vignettes for Nonet.” We recorded that on our last Koch CD, Classified with the Imani Winds who specialize in jazzy projects; having also recorded with Wayne Shorter and Paquito D’Rivera, both sensational musicians and composers. When writing for combined genres, I try to let the classical musicians shine in their tradition, the jazz group in our tradition, then juxtapose those musical worlds and sometimes for effect try to create a role reversal. The interaction is what really turns an audience on. Classical audiences are used to wonderful performers and musicianship, but they are not used to hearing Jazz musicians create amazing improvisations right before their eyes and ears. That is an exciting thing to witness from the crowd’s perspective.
I have never had the itch to conduct: My skin isn’t thick enough, nor is my musical personality so authoritative as to dictate to fellow musicians what and how to play. I’ve already had my say in that as the composer. I like collaborating with excellent musicians, and in the spirit of cooperation, we explore new ways to play things based on the different talents each musicians brings to the table.
Q: Along with playing selections from LifeTimes, the BBQ’s tribute to your father, will we hear any selections from Dan’s disc Live from The Cellar, which celebrated both your dad’s music and your mom Iola Brubeck’s lyrics?
A: We will be playing some of the tunes from LifeTimes like “Kathy’s Waltz,” “Jazzanians,” “Take Five” and “The Duke.” After soundcheck, we get together to decide which tunes will fly in the acoustics of the hall we are playing in. We have been playing some of the tunes from Dan’s record because the melodies and the changes are so wonderful. However, don’t worry, I won’t be singing any of my Mom’s great lyrics; I’ll leave that to others. Dan and I feel very fortunate to have grown up around all that creativity and such great musicians as Paul Desmond, Joe Morello and Eugene Wright. They were like uncles and musical godfathers to us.
Q: You’re a proud grandfather now. Is there any chance of their being a Third or Fourth Generation of Brubeck that we can listen for?
A: You never know. My own children did not opt to be musicians; maybe they could see the merits of a more stable life – but they also sure loved their Grandpa Dave and saw him play many times with me sharing the stage with him. I have one granddaughter right now who at age eight is deeply into musical theater. It already lights up her life, and I know she has a passion for the entire process of putting on a musical. The other granddaughters seem to be very musical, but they are very young and one brand new little being is predicted to be joining our family in early June if the doctor predictions are correct. Maybe that child will be the next Grace Kelly!
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