JazzMonthly: Well, I am totally excited about my next guest here at Jazz Monthly. He has such a great history of fantastic music, a brilliant composer, arranger, and he’s touched the lives of people in a musical way in so many lands, you’ve got to hear his latest new project, Intuition. He just happens to be the son of a legend (Dave Brubeck) Representing the Brubeck Brothers Quartet, please welcome the fantastic and amazing Mr. Chris Brubeck. Chris, how ya doin’, my friend?
Chris Brubeck (CB): I am doing well thank you. I’m always busy, which can be a bit overwhelming sometimes, but the alternative is far worse. I have a lot of composition commissions deadlines staring me in the face, so I wish I had more hours in the day to write for orchestra, be a normal person and practice.
JazzMonthly: All right. You are a multi-instrumentalist, man. Wow! Do you have a favorite instrument?
CB: Well, I guess it’s somewhere between the bass and the trombone but the piano is important for composing. I don’t consider myself someone who’s gonna go out there and try to compete with great pianists, but what’s terrific is that I know enough about piano playing that when I hear someone great, I know exactly why it freaks me out. (Both laugh.) That’s no mystery to me. I enjoy both fretless bass and bass trombone but a couple weeks ago I got a wisdom tooth pulled, so I’ve been laying low on the horn, “Hey, I guess I’m not a trombonist for a few weeks.” So then I concentrate on the bass or if I’ve got a piece to write I dig in. So whenever some aspect of my career feels like it could be getting stale or that I’m beating my head against the wall, there’s always the!
next and different thing that I have to do. My musical life is always changing and it always keeps life fresh for me. Playing my axes keeps me grounded.
JazzMonthly: Yeah, well, I can tell you have a special fondness for the trombone.
CB: I do. When I was a kid I listened to Trummy Young a lot in Louis' (Armstrong) band. His records were around the house and better yet, a few times they even rehearsed over at my house. My father and Louie and Trummy Young were all involved !
in a piece my father and my mother wrote called “The Real Ambassadors.” It had Carmen McRae and Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross in it too. So the bone just seemed like an instrument that to me had a lot of soul and could communicate like crazy. Also my older brother, Darius, already played trumpet. Dave had Paul Desmond in the group and there was an alto sax here all the time, so the trombone felt different, and it felt comfortable and it felt very human.
JazzMonthly: And you’re sort of an energetic guy and the trombone has that whole energetic connection where you’re moving and you can really feel it when you’re playing that bone.
CB: Yeah, you can also blast away and you can be raucous, and the whole sliding thing. I mean, there’s a similarity between playing fretless bass, where I’m always sliding around, and playing the trombone….and it’s actually a very hard instrument to play on the highly technical side. Not that any instrument is easy. And, gosh, there’s a ton of players that can play very well technically, but what I try to concentrate more on, and I think it comes a lot from hearing Paul Desmond, is connecting emotionally and melodically. When the whole world was shifting very strongly in the bebop direction, Charlie Parker and beyond, Paul was always joking about how he was following some sort of path that was more or less contrary. Over the years I’ve heard people say “Paul, he’s the only guy that could come up with an improvised melody that was better than the original melody in a great song.” So I was fortunate to hear that sort of sensibility about making music, and that’s kind of the direction I feel most comfortable going in.
JazzMonthly: Yes, and you’ve really taken your hand to composing and you’ve composed some great music. Is that a special talent for you that you really enjoy?
CB: Well, it’s funny because, yeah, I really enjoy it, but it’s also a form of torture. It takes so much discipline. I’m sure there are tons of talented jazz musicians that could be composers, but they’re probably all too smart to say “I’m gonna spend 800 hours writing this piece.” Because, for example, when I get burnt after the process of writing a piece…Then it’s like “Oh, gosh, please let me just play a jazz gig.” I’m not writing anything, I’m not telling anyone what to do. It’s all based on what they bring to the table, whereas it’s the total opposite thing in “classical” composing where you have to tell everyone exactly what to do.
CB: And the average person thinks of a composer as someone who constructs the melodies and the harmonies, and that would be nice, but that’s just one layer of what you do. And then you’ve got to tell everyone exactly the articulation of every note. Is it a long note? Is it a short note? That’s another thing that takes many hours to write into a score. And then it’s the dynamics, how loud you play, decrescendos, all this kind of musical language, and you have to really just be an infinitely detail-oriented person to do it. You are expected to be obsessive, and unless you’re John Williams , who’s a wonderful writer that has probably five or six people on his staff, you’ve gotta do it all yourself. It’s very much like “You are the architect, but you’re also laying every brick in the structure that you’re building.”
JazzMonthly: Well, it’s highly recognized and appreciated. Being a multi-instrumentalist, does that make it easier?
CB: It makes it easier in the sense that when I write for brass or, specifically, when I write for trombone, I know what that’s about. I sort of know the “golden” notes of what really sounds good in voicing. And actually the old-school way that you would train, the classical sort of Rimsky-Korsakov tradition and beyond if you’re conservatory trained, is that you learn how to play every instrument. And you learn every kind of fingering on every instrument. I must say that I haven’t gone that direction because maybe when I would’ve been in a conservatory learning how to do that, I was on the road touring the world playing jazz with Dave, you know, so I didn’t do that. In my late teens and early 20’s I was touring and recording Rock-n-Roll with my own g!
roups New Heavenly Blue and Sky King. We were all singing, writing and playing multiple instruments.
JazzMonthly: Yeah, well, talk to me about these various instruments that you play. I know that you love the piano, the trombone, the guitar, and you are a great bass player…does it put you in a different world with each instrument?
CB: Yeah, each instrument has these unique qualities, and as a composer sometimes there’s even other subtle differences. For example, I was just working out in California on a Meet the Composer project and I was staying at someone’s house that had a guest apartment attached to their house. They had a nice piano inside, and normally, now, I don’t even touch the pencil to paper because if I were to write you a note, my handwriting is horrible. My wife says that I should’ve become a doctor. It’s that bad.
CB: So I write everything straight into a computer program called Finale. The computer doesn’t write the music; it’s like a radical typewriter that inputs the music that you’re thinking…you can type it in and it looks just beautiful. It looks like printed music that you would buy at a store. But I was away from all my computers so I was composing on the piano with a pencil and that was a different flavor. Creating in that way with the kind of sounds you get from the sustain pedal and the harmonics ringing leads you to different places than you would go get with an electric MIDI keyboard. Sometimes I’ll write on guitar because that’s a whole different vibe. I just wanna get myself out of whatever head space I’ve been too complacent in, so I’ll switch instruments to try to write.
JazzMonthly: Yeah, well, that’s a beautiful thing. You mentioned being on the road with Dave. You know, coming up with a legend, has it made it easier for you or less easy?
CB: Well, because of the nature of Dave’s musicianship and the kind of person that he is, it’s made things easier because I’m very proud of what he’s done and what he has stood for. There are certain people in the business, I guess it would be politically correct not to name names, but if they were my famous father and all the stories I heard about them were true, then I’d be embarrassed. (Both laugh.) So I don’t have that problem. And also, in terms of me being a composer, you know, I’m sure I was inspired by seeing all the work that Dave has done to write all the classical music that he’s churned out. There’s a part of you that says “Well, my dad did it, I’ve got it within me, I can do it.” For example, when I look at my parents’ situation, my dad does write !
some lyrics, but mostly the lyrics are written by my mother and the music by my father. Growing up it seemed like “Well, I’ve got both of their genes. Why can’t I write music and lyrics?” So it seems like something natural. Over my career I’ve written for people as diverse as Patti Labelle, Bobby Womack, and Frederica von Stade. I feel very lucky to have come into the world with Dave and Iola as parents. I mean, they’re amazingly talented, smart, giving and kind. Plus they’re not screwed up people. It’s incredible.
JazzMonthly: Yes indeed, and we love ‘em both, let me tell ya. I think I speak for millions around the world when I say that.
CB: Yeah, and that’s another good thing. I mean, at this point, so many people have seen…for example, when Ken Burns had his multi-night series on jazz…
CB: Well, actually, Ken Burns himself told me that he thought the emotional center of that entire seven or eight-hour series, is Dave’s talking on the camera about his experience as a kid. When his father, who was a cowboy, introduced him to a former slave and made my father absorb the inhumanity. My Grandpa wanted his son to never forget that injustice. “Okay, I want you to see how horrible slavery is” and Dave saw the scars on this guy’s back. Ken Burns, when he tackles jazz, I mean, he loves jazz, but it’s really like baseball; it’s a metaphor for exploring what American society is. So many people out there, when they saw Dave, the way his vibe and his soul came through, talking in that moment in the show, and breaking down, they said “Geez, for some reason, I guess ‘cause he was so successful, I so!
rt of dismissed Dave as a spiritual person.” (Both laugh.) And there was all this reassessment that came out saying “What is it about Dave?” And the only thing I can think of is that it comes with the territory. If you were wildly successful like Take Five was and Time Out the album, and “Blue Rondo,” those tunes, I think your peers generally, if they don’t know you, they tend to create a space for you of “Well, you don’t really deserve it” and something like that. That’s where anyone that gets to know you, they completely say “Oh, I gotta reassess what’s going on here.”
JazzMonthly: Yeah, you’re so right. And just going back to what you said there about having successful parents that were smart and just great people, I think you have it in your genes too, my friend, because I know just talking to you, we had a lot of fun just before we even did this interview. (Both laugh.)
CB: That’s right, we did.
JazzMonthly: And just going back to some of your accomplishments, man, you’ve accomplished quite a bit. You just have such a great command of jazz, blues, folk, funk, man, your rock band, I mean, you’ve done some amazing things, and just speaking of jazz itself, look at the accolades that you’ve received in a short period of time. It’s a wonderful thing. I think of “Mark Twain’s World.”
CB: Oh wow, you know about that?
JazzMonthly: What an incredible piece, you know? And you were named, what, Musical Alive Composer-in-Residence with the Stockton Symphony Orchestra.