Dave Brubeck Quartet
Jazz Impressions Of Eurasia
Jazz Impressions Of Eurasia is a tour travelog of six unique tracks dedicated to the same amount of destinations, written by pianist Dave Brubeck (1920–2012) right after the tour in order to preserve the impetus of the memories and incidents, recorded on two days in July and August 1958 in New York, and released in the same year on Columbia Records. My opening statement in my review of Dave Brubeck’s Jazz Impressions Of Japan (1964) is still of value here: “Linking the music of Dave Brubeck to the Exotica genre is as farcical as hailing Martin Denny for his achievements in the realms of electronic music. But wait, I have my good reasons!” I had them indeed, and I have them in regard to Jazz Impressions Of Eurasia as well, although it is much harder to justify a link – no matter how small and fragile – to the Exotica genre, even though the magic word Eurasia and the gleeful Pan Am front artwork ought to be reasons enough to place it in the outer rims of Exotica, right?
Not this time, for Brubeck’s concoctions are not exclusively about the good, celebratory things in life. The album can be divided into two distinct parts: a trio of uplifting, swinging pieces of wonder, contentment and, yes, exoticism, whereas the other trio is based on the observation of post-World War II aftermaths in the forms of destruction, poverty and related fears… with the sorrowful undertones and occasional timbres in minor. As with all typical Brubeck arrangements, there is no real exotic instrument on board. This is your classic Jazz quartet, with Dave Brubeck on the piano, Joe Benjamin on the double bass, Joe Morello on the – oftentimes surprisingly staggering – drums and Paul Desmond on the alto saxophone who carries the compositions even more often than the bandleader himself! So one thing is for sure: it is ill-advised to count Jazz Impressions Of Eurasia to the Exotica genre, so let me rephrase the point of view I apply to this review. Which characteristics and peculiarities can bring Exotica listeners joy, and should they investigate in the end? I cannot give the ultimate answer, but have carved out a string of thoughts below.
Indeed, Dave Brubeck should not be linked to the flamboyant genre called Exotica, and if anyone did exactly that, the pianist’s aura would outshine the vivacious colors of that genre anyway. However, the opener Nomad is one of the tracks that implies the Middle Eastern and Oriental tonalities which traverse the Exotica genre so regularly to this day, if only in modicums. As Brubeck recalls in the liner notes of the album’s reissue over 30 years later, the composition is written on site in Kabul when the band experienced the frighteningly regular reappearance of street dogs. These brutes came in groups, hunted everything down they could find, but did never even dare to attack the titular nomads who rode through the streets with their camels. Stringed drums on both sides of the camel announced their arrival from afar in advance which scared off the dogs. This story is indeed exotic and captures the uneasy shadiness and danger which is so often evoked with desert-like cities and climes.
The timbre of Nomad, however, is not scary at all. It is curiously insouciant, with Paul Desmond’s alto saxophone spiraling above the moonlit scenery of Joe Benjamin’s bass billows, Joe Morello’s sylphlike hi-hats and Dave Brubeck’s careful piano backdrop. The structure is entirely accessible, stardust glitters waft in the air, the mood is undoubtedly carefree. The latter part features an eclectic performance by Morello on the tom toms which leads back to the phenomenon on the streets the band witnessed. In addition, Brubeck’s piano tones are put in the foreground as well, at least momentarily so, before the arrangement focuses yet again on Desmond’s sax. As enchanting the moonlit scenery is, it cannot possibly be linked to Kabul itself, no matter how clichéd the expectations of the listener might be. The swinging night flight is more akin to the illuminated streets of Manhattan than the dust-covered shady back alleys of Kabul, but in any regard, Nomad is delightfully accessible and euphonious.
Brandenburg Gate follows next, and this is the one Exotica fans can skip altogether. It is deliberately minimal and reduced, comprising of baroque interstices, the complete omission of drums and a curious focussing indicator on the foreground, with a black pith of nothingness reigning in the back. Benjamin’s bass runlets are the only darker elements of this piece which almost conflate with the nullity. Brubeck’s bronze chord structures meanwhile emanate a meaningful lethargy, whereas Desmond’s saxophone towers above the scenery in complete freedom, completely ignoring the heavier mood with its almost effervescent energy. According to Brubeck, the composition was initiated by his adventurous passing through Poland via the Brandenburg Gate. The eponymous composition neglects the loftiness and sense of wondrousness and is thus the weakest one in terms of the specific and admittedly peculiar point of view which is applied on AmbientExotica.
The Golden Horn is much more adventuresome and swashbuckling in this regard. A theme dedicated to Turkey’s Bosporus Straits, this upbeat breakneck travelog launches with Morello’s impressive timpani-oid kettle drums and cacophonous globs of Brubeck’s piano which gradually change into harmonious ones before they reach their final labyrinthine stage and make room for Desmond’s particularly effulgent saxophone whose afterglow conflates with the abyssal drums and sizzling hi-hat counterparts. Even Benjamin’s bass flumes are seemingly murky. The trip is rounded off by a rising succession of piano tercets which transmute into gyrating coils next to the droning drums. The potential clash between luminescence and obscurity is cleverly solved, even though the ensuing convolution surely prevents many a listener to enjoy the synergetic simultaneity of these incompatibilities. The tempo, I presume, may then be seen as the biggest boon in terms of a potential enjoyment.
Side B features another triad of unique impressions. Thank You (Dziekuje) is another more heavy look onto the subject, akin to Brandenburg Gate, for Brubeck claims a Polish-Russian ancestry. The bloodcurdling and dreadful devastation the band encountered was undoubtedly a catalyst for the realization of this composition as well. The pianist cites eleven concerts in this country which were in parts reached by a bus whose floorboards were out and torn apart so that the road was literally visible under one’s feet. Once the band took a train to the concert, Brubeck envisioned Thank You (Dziekuje) as a speech of thanks transformed into music. There was not even time to rehearse it, Brubeck simply hummed the leitmotif which the band then envisioned and improvised on the fly, followed by a huge applause. Thank You (Dziekuje) is the shortest piece of a mere three and a half minutes and incidentally the only quasi-piano arrangement on the album, with the most cautious hi-hat airflows by Joe Morello. Its devoted compression of sorrow and glints of hope is yet again not compatible to the cheerful front artwork, but the interdependence between Brubeck’s observations and the lethargic glissando is a fitting one.
Up next is Marble Arch. Eminently aeriform and mercurial, it is the contravention to the Polish scenery. Situated in London’s Hyde Park and passed by on an archetypical red double-decker bus, it is a notably swinging piece supercharged with Benjamin’s wave-like or mountainous bass protrusions, the highest and glitziest piano tones to be found on the whole album which then turn into sun-dappled capsules of warmth. Morello’s saxophone is only prominently used in the middle segue and otherwise remains silent most of the time. Morello’s short drum intersections and silkened hi-hats and cymbals work well with the other textures and exquisitely round off the uplifting sightseeing mélange.
The finale is called Calcutta Blues, another counterpart to the wealthy lives of the Occident in the 50’s. It is about the millions who sleep in the streets, the taxis which are misused as ambulances, the plagues and omnipresent miseries. On a positive note, the revved up exotic drums are soothing and augment the plasticity of the piece, with the reverberation of Morello’s tenor saxophone fathoming out the darkness next to Brubeck’s pointillistic but designedly mousy chords. An ending to ponder, but an unvarnished study of Eurasia.
Jazz Impressions Of Eurasia is no Exotica work, I have to stress it once again, but the characteristic traits it shares with the colorful genre can undoubtedly be enjoyed by those listeners who do not mind a jazzier approach, either because they like a fair bit of eclecticism in their music or because Jazz was their point of origin all along in their music-related journey, from which they traveled to the auroral plastic jungles. Two reasons prevent Jazz Impressions Of Eurasia from being fully linked, firstly the clear-cut authenticity of Brubeck’s travelog, and secondly the devastation the witnesses the farther the band ventures to the East, caused by wars and subjectively wrong politics. These topics have nothing in common with the purposefully poeticized fantasies of Polynesia. The Eurasia chapter is thus by far the most dichotomous of Brubeck’s Jazz Impressions series, and then again it is not, for no matter how ferocious the transformed incidents are, the album is divided into a trio of eminently carefree, joyously swinging pieces and another trio of pondering, contemplative contrapuntal constructions, as mentioned before. These tunes are intertwined, as should be, for sorrow and happiness are oftentimes hard to divide.
The – distantly – exotic tunes are Nomad, The Golden Horn and Marble Arch. Especially the first two are also about exotic locations, and even though the possible timbre does not find its way into the compositions themselves, the revved up drums, soothing saxophone melodies and superb piano cascades make these pieces wonderfully beautiful. There is always a sense of movement going on, whereas the Brandenburg Gate, Thank You (Dziekuje) and Calcutta Blues seem to depict a state of paralysis, either because of the architectural meaningfulness or the limited possibilities to escape from a life in destruction and poverty. You see, Jazz Impressions Of Eurasia is a double-edged sword, and whether it is aesthetically right to thoroughly enjoy its three exotic-oid pieces while neglecting the grave ones is up to the respective listener. Available on vinyl, remastered CD and download version on iTunes, Amazon MP3 and cohorts as well as streaming services.
Exotica Review 474: Dave Brubeck Quartet – Jazz Impressions Of Eurasia (1958). Originally published on Aug. 13, 2016 at AmbientExotica.com.