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JMT 1.05 Dave Brubeck Takes 5

Jane's Musical Takeaway
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Episode 5: Dave Brubeck Takes 5

Learning to count is a basic childhood skill acquired through games, songs, and patterns; as we grow up it's not all about the maths. Counting is used in endless ways from keeping score in a sports match, to teaching a marching band or parade group to walk on the same foot at the same time, to figuring out if there are enough slices of pizza to go around. Counting is an important part of dance and gymnastics routines, and it's also an important part of music.

A lot of basic music is counted in multiples of 2 or 4. Imagine yourself marching; tap your left foot and think 'Left' then tap your right foot and think 'Right'. That's two counts; one more step with each foot gives you 4 counts. If being able to count the beats in a piece of music is a new concept for you, however, don't despair. Here's a short video demonstrating how to count the opening of Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean'. You'll notice that the demo uses a series of 8 counts instead of 4, because it's meant for dancers who invariably think in 8 (remember hearing '5-6-7-8!' in the musical A Chorus Line?). Once you've tried counting with the video, try counting in groups of 4 (1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4) instead of counting all the way up to 8.

Jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck (bio here) is an important figure in 20th century jazz, and his quartet that you're about to listen to is one of the most famous jazz groups of all time. The Dave Brubeck Quartet shot to fame with songs that were written using an odd number of counts; instead of 4 counts (or beats), these pieces might have 5, 7, or 9 beats. Today we're going to look at the quartet's landmark recording, 'Take Five', featuring Brubeck on piano, composer Paul Desmond on alto sax, Eugene Wright on bass, and Joe Morello on drums. The following video not only features a classic live performance, but it will also count the entire song for you. I hope you'll try counting along with it.

If you'd like to experience the piece without the distraction of counting, here's a slightly longer version, complete with drum solo, filmed live in Belgium in 1964. For my takeaway, however, please refer to the counted video above.

Jane's Musical Takeaway:

  • 1. Let's start by looking at the structure of the song. The drums begin and are joined by the piano a few seconds later; together they set the rhythm (or counts) for the piece. Paul Desmond begins playing the melody on alto sax at 11 secs, and then takes an improvised solo beginning at 47 secs. Dave Brubeck begins a piano solo at 3.11, returning to the song's introduction at 4.17 at which point Desmond plays the melody a final time. This is fairly standard jazz structure: an intro, followed by the melody (sometimes called the head), improvised solos, and then a final trip through the melody.
  • 2. Now let's look at the introduction. Although the applause obscures part of it, the drummer actually plays 4 sets of 5 counts to begin the song (20 counts). Then the piano enters, and they play another 20 counts together. Because the piece is counted in 5, each set of 5 counts equals what we call a measure (or a bar). You might have heard someone refer to a 4 bar or 8 bar intro, and that's what we have here: 4 sets of 5 counts (4 measures) by the drums, and 4 more sets with both piano and drums playing. No matter how you look at it, though, that's a long intro. Everyone could have started playing right after the drum's opening measures, but here's why I think they didn't. Firstly, the extra measures are preparing the audience for something different (although clearly some of them know what's coming); secondly, the extra measures allow the players to 'set the groove', which means they are gearing up to play something that is also outside their usual repertoire. The result is a more secure start for everyone.
  • 3. Let's explore improvisation for a moment. To improvise means to create something spontaneously without preparation. It's the same principle used by theatre or comedy improv groups who create unique performances along a given theme. Jazz musicians do the same thing, basing their individual solos on the melody, harmony, and structure already established by the song they're playing. Improvisation isn't new; musicians have been practicing this special art for a long time; for example German composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a master of improvisation. Improvisation is creation with intent; each piece of music has its own special grammar and vocabulary, and a good improvisation will reflect this. There's an old saying about jazz which states there are no wrong notes, only poor choices, and it's the same thing with improv. Improvising well requires split second decisions, an innate understanding of the material you're working with, and maybe even a little luck.
  • 4. Perhaps you're wondering why only the piano and sax got to take solos. If jazz involves improvisation shouldn't everyone have a go? Realistically there isn't always time for everyone to take extended or even short solos; other times, two instruments may trade a few bars back and forth, creating a type of duelling improv.
  • 5. Lastly, did you notice how subtle the song is? The melody is very laid back even though it has lots of embellishment or ornamentation. Paul Desmond's solo sounds minimalistic, meaning he does a lot with few notes much of the time. Dave Brubeck's solo feels more complicated in places, but it's also very subtle. The bass player mostly plays on beats 1, 4 and 5, while it's up to the drummer to drive the piece and propel it forward with the now contagious rhythm - even as the melody dies away.

'Take Five' has beoome a jazz standard, and although other groups have recorded it, the version by the Dave Brubeck Quartet remains the definitive version.

Find out more!

Dave Brubeck website
What is Jazz? National Museum of American History
Jazz at Lincoln Center: Take Five (10 mins)
Why do musicians count 1-2-3-4 and dancers count 5-6-7-8
Extra: A Chorus Line opening sequence, 5-6-7-8!

If you enjoyed this episode of Jane's Musical Takeaway, buy me a cup of coffee :)

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