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Dave Brubeck

Bobby Militello

Michael Moore

Michael Moore & Bobby Militello

Randy Jones

Michael Moore & Randy Jones

photos by Andrzej Pilarczyk

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Picotte Recital Hall
Massry Center for the Arts
College of Saint Rose
Albany, NY
October 14, 2009

by J Hunter

Shows at Picotte Recital Hall are becoming a lot like summer jazz shows at Skidmore: If you’re not lined up at least one hour before show time, be prepared to standthe rest of the evening. Then again, the SRO crowd could be explained by the fact that a true jazz icon was playing a small hall that was an acoustic marvel. Whatever the reason, the audience gave the Dave Brubeck Quartet – all of them rocking the Old School in tuxedos, black ties, and shiny black shoes – a long, enthusiastic standing ovation before the band struck a single note. As is often the case, Brubeck’s grin evoked a jack-o’-lantern with long gray hair as he let the applause wash over him. Finally Brubeck said, “I hope you do that after we play.” (We did. But I’m getting ahead of myself again.)

Watching Brubeck not play has become slightly painful: He tends to walk like Tim Conway did on The Carol Burnett Show; his voice has a halting, breathless quality that makes you want to look for an oxygen tent; and when he stands at the piano with his hands on the instrument, you really get the impression that he’d fall down without something to hold onto. And all those things go down the Memory Hole once Brubeck sits down at the keyboard and starts making magic… in this case, with a 15-minute Duke Ellington medley that was tighter than a New York subway at Rush Hour. Ellington’s signature version of “Take the A Train” is a big-band juggernaut that sounds like it should never be “played small.” The Brubeck Quartet implodes that theory by shrinking the piece to an intimate size, even as they maintain its ebullient energy. The only horn blowing on Brubeck’s version is Bobby Militello’s searing alto, but that was more than enough on the one melody line that may be better known than the melody line of “Take Five.”

Brubeck’s playing style is percussive in nature, but that doesn’t mean he sees himself as The Big Hammerthat treats every musical problem as a nail. Brubeck’s percussiveness is site-specific, with an over-arching emphasis on embellishment. He does more with a single chord than many players do with a hyper-speed run, and those “Brubeck chords” have an ethereal quality I’ve never heard anyone achieve. Brubeck can “run” with the best of them, but it was his chord work that ruled the waves on the lilting “Margie” and the haunting “Elegy” (and, of course, on “Take Five”). He had a stunning duo moment with bassist Michael Moore on Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You”, which Brubeck introduced as one of his and Moore’s “earliest musical memories.” Moore played a cut-down bass that could have passed for a fat cello, particularly when Moore brought out the bow for “Elegy.” Randy Jones’ brush work let Moore and Brubeck have their quiet moments, but he was ready to give his kit a good thrashing on “I Got Rhythm” and “Crescent City Stomp.” Brubeck introduced the latter tune by saying, “I’m gonna play it… so we don’t forget it!”

I hate to admit this, but as good as Militello has been in the time he’s been with the DBQ, I’ve always had the impression that the ghost of Paul Desmond (and the longtime Brubeck fans that hold Desmond’s work as sacrosanct) kept Militello from reaching his full potential whenever he’s played Brubeck Quartet classics. That impression turned into a Mushroom Cloud on this evening, and it was the only thing that made me smile wider than Brubeck chords. Militello’s sax had fire and passion, and a playfulness that embraced Desmond’s sound instead of shunning it. He slid and slinked on “Gone with the Wind”, and drew many a whoop from the crowd with one long, slow, rising note during “Stormy Weather.” This was the burning reedman I’d heard as a leader before he joined up with Brubeck, and it was great to see Militello hit that performance level again.

This concert must have seemed like a dream to some audience members. Brubeck can play (and has played) anywhere he wants, up to and including the National Cathedral in Washington, DC., and here he was at College of Saint Rose “conducting” the crowd through an impromptu sing-along on the encore “Show Me The Way To Go Home.” But back before Time Out went Super Nova, the Brubeck Quartet made their bones playing & recording at small schools like College of the Pacific, Oberlin, and Fullerton Junior College. This show was, in essence, Dave Brubeck returning to his roots, and the overwhelming adoration the crowd gave Brubeck and his partners contained one emphatic message: “Come back any time!”

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.