Monday, September 07, 2009

QSF Plays DB

QSF Plays Brubeck
ViolinJazz Recordings

Though never really a part of the West Coast “Cool” jazz movement, Dave Brubeck is the quintessential California jazz artist. The son of a hardy cattle rancher, Brubeck would study at Oakland’s Mills College with the acclaimed French émigré composer Darius Milhaud and first came to prominence on the Berkley-based Fantasy label. Renowned for his experiments with unusual time signatures, Brubeck would also compose several large scale sacred orchestral pieces, combining classical and jazz idioms. Given his roots and influences, it seems quite fitting that the genre-defying Bay Area-based Quartet San Francisco would interpret his compositions on their latest CD, logically titled QSF Plays Brubeck.

Brubeck’s Time Out is one of the bestselling jazz records of all time, so it makes sense the quartet chose many of those familiar compositions, starting with “Three to Get Ready,” a jazz waltz that seems particularly well suited to the string quartet format. Yet the QSF (violinists Jeremy Cohen and Alisa Rose, violist Keith Lawrence, and cellist Michelle Djokic) still preserve a sense of Brubeck’s muscular rhythmic drive. They also faithfully translate “Strange Meadowlark,” retaining Brubeck’s elegant introduction and Paul Desmond’s sweetly sincere alto solo in violinist Jeremy Cohen’s string arrangement.

Departing from Time Out and subsequent “Time” themed albums (Time In, Time Further Out), the QSF also cover “The Golden Horn,” a composition inspired by Brubeck’s 1958 U.S. State Department of Eastern Europe and the Mid East. Again, Cohen’s arrangement and the Quartet’s seamless ensemble playing effectively capture the exotic vibe of Brubeck’s melody, derived from “Choktasha-keraderam,” the Turkish words for “thank you.”

“The Duke” was Brubeck’s tribute to Duke Ellington, his longtime Columbia label-mate and inspiration. The arrangement, by Brubeck’s cellist son Matthew, is as buoyant and lilting original, slyly quoting from several Ellington standards in its swinging prelude. Also quite rousing is the brief rendition of “Unsquare Dance,” with Rose getting down-home with the jazz waltz.

Even though it was composed by Desmond, the QSF had to include “Take Five,” arguably the single most recognizable jazz tune ever waxed, which Brubeck has probably played nearly every night of his life since it was first recorded in 1959. In their improvised solos, Rose and then Cohen nicely express their distinctive musical personalities, while Cohen’s arrangement evokes the cool mood of the original.

The QSF conclude with an exploration of the sacred Brubeck, giving a stirring rendition of “Forty Days” (a reference to Christ in the Desert), originally a “Time” composition that evolved into the extended composition Light in the Wilderness. Spotlighting Djokic’s cello, it is the dramatic highpoint of the disk. Their moving performance is appropriately followed by the traditional “What Child is This” (a.k.a. “Greensleeves”), the ringer of the set, but qualifying for inclusion because Brubeck performed as a piano solo on a Christmas CD in the 1990’s.

Throughout the program, the QSF show the discipline of a fine classical chamber ensemble, but also a surprisingly swinging approach to time. The result is an excellent hybrid of jazz and classical forms that should particularly appeal to those well steeped in Brubeck’s music. It is a classy tribute that even carries the endorsement of the Jazz Ambassador himself.