“Jazz Monthly Feature Interview” Chris Brubeck
Smitty: 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.
Smitty: 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.
Smitty: 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.
Smitty: 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.
Smitty: 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.”
Smitty: 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 groups New Heavenly Blue and Sky King. We were all singing, writing and playing multiple instruments.
Smitty: 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.
Smitty: 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.
Smitty: 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 sort 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.”
Smitty: 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.
Smitty: 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?
Smitty: What an incredible piece, you know? And you were named, what, Musical Alive Composer-in-Residence with the Stockton Symphony Orchestra.
CB: That’s how “Mark Twain” came about the first time, and for your readership, that was a piece where the idea was to have a symphony orchestra with actors, not singers. I chose to concentrate on the autobiography that Mark Twain wrote. He was an incredible human being and writer. So that ended up….I didn’t mean for it to….but I got on a roll and it ended up being about an hour and a half long. I partnered up with that orchestra again and that’s where I just came back from, being in Northern California. The idea was when I did some of the Mark Twain Meet the Composer activities, you’re not only supposed to write the piece, but you’re supposed to go out to the community and try to get them to understand what a composer is. For us that means really in the trenches, like going to all these different High Schools. In California some of the schools are pretty under-funded compared to the East Coast schools. They have teachers that care a lot about the kids, but because of the tax base and the way they calculate the school taxes, they’re kind of chronically under-funded. And it also means you have to go to the Kiwanis Club or Rotarians and say “Hi, I’m a composer.” Of course, you feel like a monkey in a zoo, but that’s the point of the whole effort, let them get to know who you are, and how you work. But when I was reaching out to these kids, I saw that a lot of them didn’t know what a composer was, and didn’t especially care what a composer was. They didn’t know who Mark Twain was, and didn’t really care to know who Mark Twain was. (Both laugh.) So I went there feeling kind of frustrated and then I got together with the people in the orchestra and we were crazy enough to say “Well, let’s figure out how we can reach those kids!” So the idea was that we went to their teachers….this took about a year of planning….and said “Let’s get these kids to write poems and essays on the topic of how does music make you feel?”
Smitty: Very nice.
CB: And about a thousand kids in about eight different high schools wrote poems and essays. Some teachers filtered them down so I got about two or three hundred of the best. I was looking for what looked like song lyrics to me or things that could inspire me. In fact, today I’ve been working on an extended composition that is based on a poem written by one of these students. It had lines and thoughts that I could supplement and turn into the text for a choral piece with orchestra. That’s good for the concert and the symphonic based audience. That’s going to happen in the Spring. What was important at first was “how do I reach these kids in the schools, not the symphonic patrons?” So I turned other kid’s poems into more R&B/Jazz/ Pop songs. We also got together a young band of incredible musicians. There was a soulful singer who’s only 21, a girl named Yvette Couvson. I got two kids from the Brubeck Institute out in Stockton, California. One of them is this kid named Lucas Pino, who is a great young tenor sax player, and Glenn Zaleski, a terrific young piano player. Then I got a symphony orchestra drummer, Brian Kendrick, who actually is very, very good at R&B and jazz, and a fine guitarist, Ken Cefalo, who owns a music store and wanted to help reach the kids. We had one rehearsal to put it together and I had written the charts out in advance. We went into these school auditoriums and they’re all coming to this assembly thinking, like, “Oh no, orchestra’s coming. Look out.” And then we’re like kicking their butts with some funk and jazz, and the most important thing is we’re saying “This is a song” and every school we’re announcing “written by” and I would say “Japonica Howard” or whoever it was that I based the lyrics on. Often I would link three or four different student’s poems and add some of my own words to make a stronger set of lyrics. Suddenly they’re like “heroes” and they’re a part of the creative process. Someone’s saying to them “Look, you have an original thought that’s worth something!” Because we live in a society where we’re all consumer-oriented, people forget that originality is a most rare and beautiful thing. So anyway we were all thrilled because the songs went over great for the kids, even if I didn’t select their work, they at least tried to put some original thoughts on paper. They were told that someone in the educational system cares that you have an original thought and an opinion. The kids loved it, the kids were all excited, and that’s just one small phase of my life that I just got through doing.
Smitty: Absolutely, man, and it’s great when you can reach the kids. What a great idea, too, to approach it that way. You got them involved in something beautiful!
CB: Yeah, yeah, well, I could’ve run and said “I’m never gonna go back there again,” but I decided to try one more time.
Smitty: Yeah, and I’m glad you did. That’s great, man. I love that when we can reach the kids because there’s so much that they will miss if we don’t.
CB: We went into the studio the last night, which was really great ‘cause a wonderful recording engineer has a studio and he just volunteered. He said “I won’t charge anything, I love this project, we gotta get music to the kids.”
Smitty: Very cool! I love it, and that’s just one or two things that you’ve accomplished. But you’ve done so much more. I mean, you’ve been commissioned with New York Pops, U.S. Army Field Band.
Smitty: That’s a kickin’ band, man.
CB: Oh yeah, man. That was funny. As a matter of fact, it’s funny you should say that. I just got an e-mail from that conductor, Colonel Finley Hamilton, tonight and he’s playing very near my house, and he said “Hey, man, you wanna come to our concert?” And actually we’re doing this interview so I couldn’t go and also because I’m working on this other piece. He was so funny ‘cause he heard me play the first time I had a piece played with the Boston Symphony. He heard one of the best trombonists in the world play it , a guy named Doug Yeo, and he said “I got a feeling that you’d be great writing for band. Have you ever written for band before?” And I said “No. I don’t even know what’s really in a military band.” And so he was telling me what it was and he stayed after me for something like five years until we finally got it together. Believe me, when you get a commission from the U.S. Army Band, you go through this process as if you were selling machine gun shells, you know, it’s like open bidding and, you know, background check. “I just wanna write band tunes!” (Both laugh.) So you go through this process of military lawyers and stuff, and so I wrote this new work very quickly. It’s called “On the Threshold of Liberty.”
Smitty: Oh wow.
CB: Which is a title that cuts both ways. (Both laugh.) This was about four years ago. And I played a synth rendition of it and I showed him the score. He said “I love it, but make it harder!” (Both laugh.) Because a lotta times when you write, you actually have to be careful about how much rehearsal time are you gonna get? Like naively when I started working with orchestras, I thought like “Oh my God, these guys can play ‘The Rite of Spring.’ There’s nothing I could write that would be too hard.”
CB: However, that is a false assumption because everyone in that orchestra has played “Rite of Spring” before they get there and they run through it and the conductor gives them some interpretive changes. But your music, if it’s as hard as “Rite of Spring,” they’ve never seen it before, and with economics being what they are, they don’t rehearse it that much.
CB: So anyhow, because he’s conducting U.S. Army Field Band, he’s got these great musicians that said “You know, I don’t wanna be hassled with gigs and driving and flying,” so they just sign up. They’re “lifers “and they practice and rehearse all day. So they want a piece that is basically what I call a “nyeah-nyeah-nyeah-nyeah-nyeah” piece that no one else can play. Because no one else can put in the rehearsal time and therefore no one else can kick that much butt. (Both laugh.) So they did it. Now, this is the good news and the bad news, ‘cause they were tremendously happy, they played it on tour, and it’s true: almost no one else can play it so no one else IS playing it. (Both laugh.) As a composer you want your stuff to be widely played but you go for the challenge of the moment and you cross your fingers and see what happens.
Smitty: Yeah, man, and that’s cool. Talk to me about working with Frederica von Stade.
CB: Oh God. This came about because of another phase of my life that we haven’t mentioned yet. I grew up in Connecticut next to this man named Bill Crofut, who was a Pete Seeger disciple. He got into music not because of the music, but because he saw how Pete Seeger could make social change through music by artists like Woody Guthrie. Bill Crofut was one of these kind of international folksinger guys and he knew me from the neighborhood. I went on the road with him when I was 17. I would work on his records over the years when he made them. He’s got the most backbone of anybody I’ve ever been around and I’m very sad to say that he passed away. He would overcome any obstacle to make an idea happen. He had a tremendous amount of faith in me. Including doing a cd with The London Symphony and me writing all the arrangements or compositions!
CB: But he just said, you know, “This lady Frederica von Stade is fantastic and I’m gonna go up to her and I’m gonna convince her that she’s got to do a record with us.” And I said “How in the world are you going to do that?” (Both laugh.) And Bill was just….he could charm the pants off a gorilla. I mean, he could tell anyone anything. I mean, the last project he did, he went up to Meryl Streep and convinced her that she ought to be involved in a project with us.
CB: So he just did it, but Frederica and I really enjoyed working together. There’s just a great soul vibration. She’s a wonderful lady. You know, you hear stories about how opera people can be difficult or hoity toity and she’s just nothing like that. And another great singer I’ve worked with who’s nothing like that is Dawn Upshaw. Anyhow, with Frederica, you know, she said, “Let me hear some of your songs. Let’s see how I connect with them.” And this is a story that I’ll tell sometimes if I’m talking to students. An old song of mine inspired the title of this CD we did on Telarc. It’s called “Across Your Dreams, Frederica von Stade Sings Brubeck,” and my tune Across Your Dreams is one of the first songs I wrote when I was 11 years old.
Smitty: Wow, dude!
CB: Yeah, and I thought it was a cool song and I sort of pulled it out of the memory bank. Bill always loved that song and said he remembers when I was a kid and wrote it. He said “You should play that for Flicka” and, you know, there was some revamping and some tweaking of it, but there it was. I mean, if you’re a writer, anything you ever write, especially if you had that feeling, that sort of magical feeling, like “Whoa, this is coming down as a beam from above” has a lasting value. Sometimes you get all the words and all the music and the vibe’s right and you’re just getting all those elements at the same time. Those things, you know, it may take 15 years to come around, you know? (Both laugh.)
Smitty: Well, you’ve worked with so many great musicians and you’ve seen so much in your career thus far, but I can’t help it, man, I gotta get to this record, because I love this new record Intuition.
CB: Oh, I’m so glad you do.
Smitty: And I tell you, the first track, “West of One,” what a kickin’ track. I can feel some Wes Montgomery in there, man, just, I mean, lickin’ away, you know?
CB: Oh, that’s great. Well, I will pass that on to Mike DeMicco, who wrote that one.
Smitty: Yeah, man! This record reminds me of a live show and this was a song that you cats chose to come out and play first to sort of open the set, you know?
CB: Well, you’re very perceptive because as a matter of fact, we have been in the last few months we’ve been opening our shows with it.
Smitty: Oh my God.
CB: Yeah, it’s really true. It’s funny ‘cause there was always a different tune that we used to play first. Dan and I and Dave did a record called Trio Brubeck and there’s a tune of his from the sixties called “Bossa Nova U.S.A.” As you know, most Bossa Novas are in 4/4 time.
CB: When Dave and Dan and I were rehearsing to do this record, we started playing “Bossa Nova U.S.A.” and we began to laugh when we realized that we had accidentally played the Bossa Nova in 5/4.
CB: And then we said “You know, actually that’s kinda cool.” So we kept it in 5 and recorded it on purpose on that record. Often we’ll start with that because Dan is so darn comfortable in 5/4, and then Mike’s saying “Yeah, well, you grew up with that “odd groove” but I’m a lot more comfortable in 4/4.” (Both laugh.) So that’s what we’ve been doing lately.
Smitty: Oh wow, very cool. And “Bullwinkle’s Revenge.”
CB: All right!
Smitty: Man, that organ swings, doesn’t it?
CB: Yeah, absolutely, that‘s Pete Levin on the B3. Bullwinkle is a fun tune. And that is also one of the things that goes over live very, very well.
CB: ‘Cause people can follow the form of that. I mean, in a way it’s like a twisted blues, but it’s got this whole tone ascending scale bridge thing going and it sort of telegraphs where it’s going enough so that when you get up to the “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba,” you know, the big triplet break thing, you know, people are like “I know what’s coming, I know what’s coming, there it is!” (Both laugh.) So that’s always a ball.
Smitty: Oh yeah. Now, “Jump Up Get Down,” is that your showoff song or was that just a “let’s loosen up song” or what? Because, man, you cats just kicked it in another gear with that song.
CB: Oh, well, thanks. When I knew we were going be doing this record with Taylor (Eigsti), I knew some of the tunes that he liked to play were kind of difficult and highly technical, and so I just thought it would be fun for him. Actually, I’ve never played that tune with anyone but exactly who’s on the recording. I think we played it live one set when we were in….we did one of these Jazz Times cruises and I said “Come on, we gotta take a crack at this song. Here we are.” ‘Cause it almost sounds like a steel drum song, you know?
CB: We were in Antigua or some place so I said “We gotta go for it on this set.” So that’s about it, about the one time we played that thing.
Smitty: Wow. Man, I’d love to see that live. That’s a great tune.
CB: Well, thanks. I’ll pass that along and we’ll revive it.
Smitty: Yeah. All right, talk to me about the band, man. These cats are explosive. Man, these cats ought to have explosive labels on them.
Smitty: Good grief! Man! Start with Dan ‘cause he’s the Dolphin guy.
CB: Yeah, well, Dan and Mike were both in that group, the Dolphins, and they had three CDs out over the years. The bass player from that group passed away and I think the piano player has some health problems that limit his performing. The Dolphins were a great, live fusion band. Then the fusion genre was sort of dying and Mike DeMicco, the guitarist, is, as you can hear, a wonderful traditional sort of bebop jazz player as well as all the other things he can do like playing blues, etc.
CB: And so Dan, after 10 years of throwing his heart and soul into that group, said “You know, Chris, why don’t we play together and not be a fusion band so much as be more straight ahead?” Now, as you can hear from our record, it’s hard to take all the fusion out of the players.
Smitty: I know.
CB: I mean, you can help me out because maybe you’d know how to describe it. When I’m doing an interview for radio and they ask “Well, what’s the band like?” and I often say “Well, you know, it’s really a jazz group, it’s not Smooth Jazz. If you were going to bring a kid that thought he only liked rock and roll or was slightly curious about jazz, you could take them to the BBQ and they’d probably walk away loving jazz.”
Smitty: Yeah, I call it a jazz –blues- swing band. Because it’s got the bebop there, but the guitar just takes you to another place. It’s just something about where the guitar can go.
CB: Yeah, and I think that goes to what I was saying about taking someone who’s not sure, that’s a rock and roll kind of fan because the guitar’s obviously the rock and roll instrument, that’s right. And the other thing is the energy that Dan plays the drums with reminds me a lot of the energy that a rock and roll guy would bring to something.
Smitty: Yes, Dan’s a bad boy.
CB: I’ve played with Dan for years everywhere and it’s just so amazing now at this point in his career. For example we do end up playing “Take Five” almost every night. The couple times we’ve tried not to do it, people felt really ripped off.
CB: And Dan can do like a 20-minute drum solo that just has people freakin’ out. You know, he’ll do everything from picking up the maracas to blasting away with hall shattering power. He’ll play over the bar, around and through in 5/4, and I sit there hanging on by my fingernails. “Boom, boom, boom,” swinging together. As a matter of fact, we did a show in Chico. Sierra Nevada Brewing Company has started a series that’s along the lines of an Austin City Limits kind of thing. It’s called Sierra Center Stage, and they have great artists like Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, and Marcia Ball etc. It’s a series of concerts done from the Brewery Showroom, where they built a beautiful club that was kind of modeled after Yoshi’s in Oakland. That’s a great jazz club there.
Smitty: Yes it is.
CB: They did a six camera shoot of the whole concert. That’s up on satellite in different markets and PBS will show this thing. But Dan has a version of Take Five. Dan’s doing his typical thing of going crazy. But Dan’s got so many things like this. There’s this track on the record called “Parade du Funk.”
CB: And, man, he is playing some really funky “second line” stuff but it’s all in seven. (Both laugh.)
Smitty: He’s a versatile drummer. I mean, he can break out the sticks and brushes together, you name it. I like his vibe and I love that solo, man. I’ve heard his solo and it’s the best I’ve ever heard! He could solo with the best of them.
CB: Yeah, yeah, he really can, and Mike our guitarist, has just a really unique harmonic concept. There’s a tune on there he wrote called “Open Door,” that’s a twisted Bossa Nova. It’s just filled with a harmonic language that is different than mine. Again, that’s an example of what we were talking about earlier because of him writing on a guitar and that kind of voicing he develops to sound great on guitar. His songs always sound way different than mine. He’s got a couple tunes on Intuition. Our next record will have a couple of Mike’s tunes as well. He’s a fine composer and the way we write is naturally contrasting to my style. We’re a relief from each other (laughs) when his writing comes out and my writing comes out.
Smitty: Yeah. Okay, tell me about your adopted baby brother, Taylor.
CB: Oh wow, Taylor. (Both laugh.) Well, he is just so darn talented and things are going fantastically well for him, as I knew they would. As far as I’m concerned, I wanted to make this record with Taylor that would document how burning he was at such an early age. Sort of like when I used to hear all these rumors about “Hey, man, you should hear this cat. He’s unbelievable. He’s from Chicago. Herbie Hancock.” You know, I mean, it’s like someone who has got so much talent, so much technique, so much taste, so much touch. He’s got all the equipment and he’s a really great person. He’s got all the equipment you need to go as far as you can in this strange world of jazz, and now he’s even got a very big-time manager. I told her about Taylor when he was 15, saying “Man, you wanna get the goods, someone that really has a super talent, you should check this guy out,” and as I predicted everything is happening for him. I knew that someone with a big label would snatch him up and they would say “We’ll get him to play for the baddest, most famous guys to prove that he’s got his jazz diploma.” (Laughs.)
Smitty: Yeah, and that’s the way to do it.
CB: You know, so you’ll probably hear “Have you heard Taylor’s record, “Lucky To Be Me with Christian McBride, Lewis Nash and all these cats?”
CB: Oh yeah, so it’s on Concord. It actually came out about eight months ago.
Smitty: No! I must hear it! Hey, do me a favor. I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to interrupt you. Tell the story of how you guys met Taylor, just for the fans.
CB: Sure, well, this happens quite a bit. I was playing bass in Dave’s group at the time and we were doing a gig on top of this mountain near San Jose where there was a winery and they have a tradition of doing these concerts. Taylor and his mom came back stage and she said “Oh yeah, you should really hear my son play. He’s so talented and he’d love to meet you.” And this happens to us enough that there’s quite a few times when the mother is delusional. (Both laugh.) With a kid, you know, who obviously has some kind of talent, but there’s not just necessarily an incredible talent, but Taylor just…. he just had so much happening. Anyhow, that’s how we first met him and I heard some recordings and Dave heard some recordings and we said “Wow, this kid’s really good.” So we stayed in touch with him and he would show up at concerts. Before long, there were promoters in California in the Bay Area that were putting on special concerts. There were three generations of great jazz pianists. It would be Dave representing the oldest one, David Benoit in the middle, and then Taylor as the upstart, being about 15, you know, completely comfortable. Sometimes Dan and I would be the rhythm section for all three pianists. Then pretty soon Dan and I would be doing gigs in California and started asking Taylor to play with us. At first when you hear a kid play you wonder if he’s actually just figured out 35 great blues choruses and he just sounds impressive but you are left wondering where’s his Achilles heel?
Well, we started doing concerts where I’d pull out a tune I wrote and I just put it in front of Taylor. I know he’d never seen it before, I know he’d never heard it before. (Both laugh.) Damn, he’d played his butt off! So he is just totally, totally the real deal. I mean, if he sang or something like Jamie Cullum, then suddenly the market….the outreach would be broader and people would know exactly who he is, but being just an instrumentalist, I keep saying “Are you sure you can’t sing?” (Both laugh.) I’m trying to hear this kid and some people can discover a great pianist.
And the other thing that is great about Taylor and being with him in the studio is that he’s so young and exuberant. It reminded me of once when my wife and I were in Hawaii and a friend of mine took us sailing on a boat. No power, just out there with sails in the wind. We came across this school of whales, including some very small ones, the baby humpbacks, and this baby humpback was just jumping in the air for joy and spinning around and splashing like “I’m free, I’m glad, I love life,” That’s what Taylor’s energy was like. It was so good and infectious. He never had anything but glowing reviews in his life, and it was just so positive to be around that vibe. Because if you’re a jazz musician long enough, you end up getting this sort of slightly jaded attitude, and that’s sort of what you need to survive, you know. Sort of making fun of yourself all the time (laughs), expecting every check to bounce and every club to be empty, all that kind of vibe. You probably know enough jazz musicians to know what I’m talking about. That attitude is sort of a survival instinct tinged with dark humor. I’m a pretty positive person and with Taylor’s attitude, and everyone’s great playing you get all this sort of happy, wonderful energy on this recording.
Smitty: Yeah, that’s a great way to put it because you could feel that whole freedom from him and I picture him as someone just smiling away while he’s playing.
CB: Yeah, he is. And, you know, the older he gets, the more you could see his brain working hard. (Both laugh.) He used to smile just about all the time and now he smiles like most of the time. I’m telling you, he’s trying to pull some stuff off that is technically daunting….the fingering and the timing and harmonically what he’s doing….I don’t blame him for breaking into like a concentrated furrowed brow every once in a while.
Smitty: Wow. Well, I gotta tell ya, Chris, I love this record, I love what you cats are doing, and I can’t say enough about this record. This is one that I highly recommend. It’s just got everything you would want in music, period.
CB: Wow, thank you very much.
Smitty: Yes, this is great stuff. Great, man, you guys have a synergy about yourselves that just makes the music explode and I think that’s a beautiful thing. Not every band can say that.
CB: Wow. Well, thank you so much. I’m just so glad that you feel it because certain of those tunes, in particular I remember “Parade du Funk,” when I heard the playback my reaction was “Oh my God, we were lucky that we had a tape rolling when that thing went down!” (Both laugh.) I think it’s a pretty safe generality to say that when you hear risk taking on a record, that’s what makes it really exciting.
Smitty: You’re so right.
CB: I must say Dan leads the way in that department. I mean, he takes these polyrhythmic riffs and I’m thinking “What in the world are you doing?” (Both laugh.) But that’s where you’re talking about that exploding thing, it’s going for broke and trying to get that energy together, and so, yeah, I’m quite proud of how the whole thing turned out.
Smitty: Absolutely. Now, you guys have a Web site, Brubeck Brothers Web site, right?
CB: Actually, what we have is a site called www.brubeckmusic.com.
Smitty: All right.
CB: And on that site are things that have to do with the Brubeck Brothers Quartet and also Triple Play, which is another band I’m in with an awesome harmonica player named Peter “Madcat” Ruth and a great guitarist named Joel Brown. We all sing, so that’s a whole vocal, folky, jazzy, bluesy thing with no drummer, by the way (both laugh). And also I should mention that we knew that Taylor has got so much music in him that he was gonna end up going his own way in his own career and have his own manager and his own tours etc.. Sometimes we play together, but we have a pianist that’s on that Sierra Nevada Center Stage show named Chuck Lamb who is a wonderful pianist and plays great. We tour with Chuck and audiences just love his playing and his vibe. The only thing is that he’s not as young as Taylor, but he’s got all these great gifts and a great attitude that projects, so he’s gonna stay young a long time. Of course, Taylor, keeps getting older he’s an old man now, about 21.
Smitty: Very cool. And you guys have a great site. That’s a nice site. Lots of pictures and great stuff and a lot of history, which is always cool.
CB: Well, thank you. I’ve gotta tell you that I’m such an idiot when it comes to computers that I can’t even look at my own site. I don’t even know what I’m doing. All I know about it is how to do Finale and do the scores, and it’s my wife, God bless her, who tries to keep things together with helping me out and sort of getting the logistics of touring together and trying to keep the Web site up to date. She tries so hard just to clear the decks of reality for me so I can just work on music and then she tries to take care of everything else, so I’m very fortunate that she has that attitude.
Smitty: Yes you are. Very cool. Well, my gosh, Chris, man, we could talk for another four hours, my friend.
CB: Hey, well, you gotta go do your thing.
Smitty: Yeah, I’ve got a show tonight. But man, it’s been a real pleasure talking with you about your career, everything you’re doing, this great new record, and your fantastic band. We’ve been talking with the amazing Chris Brubeck, he has a fantastic new record out called Intuition. I highly recommend this great record! Chris, thanks again and please keep making great music!
CB: Thank you, Smitty! It’s been a pleasure for me as well.
Note: Taylor Eigsti was just named one of the five finalists in two Grammy categories: Best Jazz Instrumental Solo and Best Instrumental Composition. Congratulations, Taylor!
Baldwin “Smitty” Smith
For More Information Visit www.brubeckmusic.com and www.kochent.com
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