I don’t know how Chris Brubeck would feel about the comparison, but as I listen to his band Triple Play’s CD, Watching the World, the reference point I keep coming back to is John Mayall’s drummerless groups of 1969-71. Brubeck’s threesome draws from a broader musical palette than Mayall’s all-blues motif, but the underlying harmonica/acoustic guitar/electric bass configuration is similar.
When I called him at his home in Connecticut a couple of weeks ago, I asked Chris for his own description of the music he makes with the trio he’s bringing to the American Theatre Saturday night.
“The music overall is kind of hard to describe,” he replied. “For example, if you went to a blues label, they’d say we’re too jazzy. If you went to a jazz label, they’d say we’re too folky. If you went to a folk label, they’d say we’re too bluesy and jazzy. It’s just this amalgamation of a lot of American styles.”
It’s a combination that is irresistible, one that isn’t surprising to anyone familiar with Chris Brubeck’s musical odyssey. The third of jazz piano legend Dave Brubeck and his wife Iola’s six children, he started playing gigs with his dad when he was a teenager.
“I think the first time that I played publicly with Dave, I was about 15,” he remembered. “But certainly we played a lot of times when I was 18, 19, 20. All that time I was doing my rock ‘n’ roll thing and playing with him.”
He and his brothers Darius and Dan recorded Two Generations of Brubeck in 1973 with their famous father, and did a followup the next year called Brother, the Great Spirit Made Us All. Then that “rock ‘n’ roll thing” looked like it would reach fruition in 1975 when Columbia released the first album by Chris’ band, Sky King. But the experience in the star-making machinery of pop music proved to be a frustrating one.
“We recorded our second record three different times,” he explained. “Once with us producing; once with Randy Brecker producing with Bob James; and once with Bob James. Each time there was this thing about ‘we’ve got to get more commercial.’ We’d bring in a good producer and say this is commercial enough and it’s really good music. But when you have an argument with the head of A&R at Columbia who says, ‘I think Love Will Keep Us Together by Captain and Tennille is what you should be doing,’ it’s hard to win that argument.”
The second album never was released. Though the band had a “three-record guaranteed deal,” the label used some contractual sleight of hand to drop them. Chris Brubeck learned that not getting what you think you want can produce far richer rewards:
“At that point I was really depressed that all the hard work for five years was just going down the toilet. My dad said, ‘Hey, screw it, jazz is more challenging than rock ‘n’ roll---start playing bass with me.’ And I did. It’s hard to be blue about your music when you get an opportunity to play with Dave and all these great musicians, and play in all the first class joints in the world---joints like Carnegie Hall.”
Chris was the bassist in the Dave Brubeck Quartet for ten years, and has continued to perform with his dad from time-to-time since. I asked if the man who gave us “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” “Take Five,” “The Duke,” “Unsquare Dance,” “Summer Song” and so many other greats over the last sixty years is as nice a guy as he appears to be.
“Yeh, he really is,” Dave Brubeck’s third son said. “When people want to know what it was like being around him, you know, it’s not really that colorful. It’s not like he was Frank Sinatra, and he wasn’t throwing hookers out of second floor windows in Las Vegas. There’s not a lot of demons in the closet there.
“He really is a good person who grew up on a ranch as a cowboy. He has very typical working values of his generation that survived the depression. He used to work from sunrise to sunset for a dollar a day. He’s not ostentatious…At the end of the day he’s got an idyllic life. The demand for him to do concerts all over the world is still very strong.”
And the third son has made a pretty good life for himself:
“For me it’s absolutely rewarding. All my life I’ve wanted to be a musician, and except for one summer for two weeks I had a job where I was chaining tree stumps in a swamp so that jeeps could pull them out, down there amongst the leeches and the mud. Otherwise it’s always been about music for me. To have a career and to keep myself fed and my family, I’ve been really fortunate.
“The thing that’s really changed in my life in the last ten or fifteen years is the whole symphonic composition/composer side of who I am. It just keeps building like a snowball.”
He’s become a prolific, in-demand composer of orchestral pieces that he calls “modern classical music that doesn’t’ sound like it was written in a conservatory for the elite.” He’s written works for the Boston Pops, famed mezzo-soprano Frederica Von Strade, the U. S. Army Field Band, the Czech National Orchestra and the New York Pops. He’s recently been putting the finishing touches on Mark Twain's World: A Symphonic Journey with Genuine Thespians, to be premiered in April by the Stockton Symphony Orchestra.
But his first love remains performance, and he keeps a busy schedule playing jazz with his brother Dan in the Brubeck Brothers Quartet and working with Triple Play.
“One of the big things that makes us sound different,” he said of Triple Play, “is that we have one of the greatest harmonica players in the world. He’s just amazing. I’ve played with him going back to Sky King and he’s played with Dave touring the world. That’s Peter ‘Madcat’ Ruth.
“The other guy in the group is Joel Brown. Joel is a wonderful classical guitarist who loves The Beatles and loves all this stuff and plays it very well, and writes and sings.
“And then I’m in there slugging on bass and trombone, and in that group I play piano too. That’s where the name Triple Play sort of fits---I’m tripley playing three things and there are three of us.
“College kids are sort of coming at it from the ‘unplugged’ thing. And older people really enjoy the group because it’s not an assault on the ears. Our repertoire includes some stuff by Dave and original songs and some popular songbook things that fit our group, so it’s comfortable and exciting for them.”
Listening to the group’s two CDs, Watching the World and Triple Play Live, has made a fan out of me. The studio disc is all-original while the live recording includes cool takes on several Dave Brubeck classics and a couple of old blues tunes mixed in with the original material. The instrumental blend is unusual and appealing, the players superb. Chris is right about Madcat’s harmonica playing (and he throws in some juicy jaws harp too), and Joel Brown is an impeccably impressive guitarist. All three sing very nicely, and Chris himself is all over the place on bass, bone and keys.
Whether Chris Brubeck or anyone else will hear the Mayall connection, I can’t say. But I am certain that everyone in the American Theatre Saturday night will come away hooked on the music of Triple Play.
copyright © 2005 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.