The pianist began to play a tender, unaccompanied rendition of "Over The Rainbow." Plainly audible along with the gently fingered keyboard was the sound of clinking glasses, of waitresses taking food and drink orders as quietly as possible, of cocktails being shaken and stirred behind the bar. It was a typical Saturday night at a crowded New York jazz club.
What made it special was that the pianist was 89-year-old Dave Brubeck, one of the most popular and acclaimed jazz musicians of all time, who was in town with his quartet for a three-night stand -- two shows nightly -- at the Blue Note club.
The fact that Brubeck is still working at all, let alone playing club gigs, is pretty astonishing. His career got started in the mid 1940s, and by 1954 he and his quartet were so popular, especially with college audiences, that he made the cover of Time magazine. He's still best remembered for his 1960 experiment with unorthodox time signatures, Time Out, which topped the pop album charts and is still one of the biggest-selling jazz records of all time.
That era now seems so far away in virtually every respect -- culturally, technologically, politically, philosophically -- that it boggles the mind to think that anyone who was making waves back then could still be around today. Going to see Brubeck's late show at the Blue Note on a Saturday night feels, in 2010, almost as improbable as going to the ballpark to catch Mickey Mantle, or attending a lecture by Alexander Hamilton. But Brubeck has never stopped recording and playing for audiences around the globe, and a few months short of his 90th birthday, he's still at it.
Brubeck is no stranger to big venues as well as clubs. I've seen him a couple of times at Carnegie Hall; the grand auditorium seemed a perfect place in which to genuflect and pay homage to the man and his music. But the sense of reverence the atmosphere produced made it feel a bit like a premature memorial service. It was at this club, during the late show on the second night of a three-night stand, where he had to compete with blueberry martinis and fried coconut shrimp for the crowd's attention, that he really came alive for me.
He's still in fine form, too. His playing may be slightly less energetic than it was fifty years ago, especially on the swingers, but he can more than hold his own in the quartet setting. Brubeck is known (and has been criticized) for his dry, cerebral piano style, and thankfully he hasn't been overcome by pathos in the winter of his years. His ballad playing is still lovely without being overly sentimental, and it's still distinctly Brubeck.
The star of the show was the saxophonist, Bobby Militello. For Brubeck fans raised on the gentle, thoughtful alto sax of the late Paul Desmond, Militello's style came as something of a shock. For most of the evening, he played a beefier-sounding tenor, and he played it in his own distinct style, which ranged from aggressive bop-styled runs to honking near-R&B that reminded me of Illinois Jacquet.
The set list wasn't particularly adventurous, mostly featuring standards like "St. Louis Blues" that the band must have performed hundreds if not thousands of times before. The closer was, inevitably, Brubeck's signature song, "Take Five," featuring a dazzling drum solo by Randy Jones and an alto sax solo in which Militello threw in a bit of "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen. It would be tempting, I imagine, for Brubeck to phone it in for shows like this one -- to conserve his energy, coast on his legend, and treat this phase of his career as a sort of victory lap. But the enormous grin that crossed his face while he was watching another band member take a solo, not to mention his own witty and sparkling piano runs, showed that he's in it for the music, not the money or the adulation.
Saturday night's late show was the quartet's fourth of six at the Blue Note for this stand. They're on a run that will take them from New York to Illinois and then Canada over the next few weeks. In November, Brubeck and Co. will be back at the Blue Note for another three nights. For the musicians, the 10:30 performance on Saturday was doubtlessly just another show. Which, for me, is what made it all the more special -- it's like the difference between watching Mickey Mantle inducted into the Hall of Fame and watching him play a doubleheader.
Brubeck doesn't seem to plan on slowing down anytime soon -- his current bookings extend through the end of the year, with more surely in store assuming his health holds up. To see this quartet play live is one of the great joys any jazz fan can experience. Don't miss your opportunity.