EMORY UNIVERSITY, OCT. 5 -- More than 50 years ago, Dave Brubeck's mentor, composer Darius Milhaud, told the young pianist that jazz music would provide a milieu for virtually any creative direction Brubeck might envision. Indeed, it has. Brubeck helped introduce unorthodox rhythms to jazz, as well as polyrhythms and polytonality (respectively, more than one rhythm or key signature played simultaneously), interjected classical influences into the form (although he's not classically trained) and subsequently integrated his jazz quartet with orchestra and chorus.
Now 81, Brubeck's current quest includes spreading the message of jazz and its possibilities to music students and other young people at schools across the country. His latest stop was Emory University, where he spent the better part of a week performing, attending seminars and making himself accessible to virtually anyone with an interest in jazz. He participated in a public question-and-answer session. He appeared in pianist/faculty member Gary Motley's jazz improvisation class, in which he and Motley performed together. He attended a performance of his compositions by Emory students (during which he spontaneously joined pianist Jen Pass during her rendition of "Take Five"). And he performed Friday with his quartet.
The Dave Brubeck Festival and Symposium culminated with Saturday night's sold-out performance at Emory's Glenn Memorial Auditorium. Titled "Dave Brubeck & His Emory Friends," the program featured Brubeck and his quartet performing his secular and sacred compositions with the students of the Emory Symphony Orchestra and Emory Concert Choir.
Before an audience that plainly adored him, Brubeck, with conductor Russell Gloyd at the helm, opened with three sacred works with the choir, including two from his mass, To Hope! A Celebration. Of these, "Peace of Jerusalem" was most memorable, thanks to a captivating groove (with something of a Native American feel) and a majestic arrangement for choir. The set also included "Forty Days," from another of Brubeck's sacred works, The Light in the Wilderness.
Quartet and choir followed with Brubeck's suite, Hold Fast to Dreams, a trio of songs featuring lyrics adapted from works by poet Langston Hughes. The leisurely paced title piece provided the evening's most cohesive union of choir and quartet. It also spotlighted clarinetist Bill Smith, who was a last-minute substitute (at this performance and the Friday quartet show) for saxophonist/flutist Bobby Militello, who was sick and unable to travel. Militello's absence was notable: Smith, who has worked with Brubeck frequently since the 1940s, brought a lighter, less powerful touch than Militello would have offered. Smith seemed restrained during the early sacred pieces, but later his contributions became brighter and more adventuresome.
After an intermission -- in which the pianist received the Emory President's Medal -- Brubeck returned with orchestra in tow, leading the band through "Summer Music," which sounded like a dramatic selection from an edgy film score, and a swinging "Big Bad Basie Is Back in Town," a tribute to Count Basie that featured extended breaks from Brubeck and Smith.
Brubeck then welcomed Emory's Gary Motley onstage, and the two traded licks on "In Your Own Sweet Way." Brubeck's most vigorous, intense piano work came on the following number, "New Wine," a dramatic excerpt from a larger work, Voice of the Holy Spirit.
Next was "Koto Song," a plaintive theme from Brubeck's 1964 recording, Jazz Impressions of Japan, that spotlighted Smith. The set closed with the ageless "Take Five," featuring an extended solo from drummer Randy Jones. Called back for an encore by a prolonged, thunderous ovation, the band played Billy Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train," with a guest shot from baritone saxophonist (and recent Emory music grad) Will Scruggs.
After the concert, a clearly fatigued Brubeck received fans, mostly students, and signed autographs, putting a coda on a week's work well done. After an upcoming European tour and a holiday break, Brubeck will spend a similar few days in residence at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville in February.
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