April 15, 2015

Chris Brubeck: Take Three

by Jim Newsom

It’s been ten years since Chris Brubeck last brought his band, Triple Play, to town.

“I’ve got a lot more gray hair in the last ten years,” he laughed as we talked recently, “though not so much on my head as on my chin.”

That performance at the American Theatre made believers out of everyone in attendance. This time around, Chris and his bandmates—classically trained acoustic guitarist Joel Brown and harmonicat extraordinaire Peter “Madcat” Ruth—will bring their distinctive genre blending, genre bending bluesy jazzy folky rocky sound to the intimate Kaufman Theatre at the Chrysler Museum on Friday, April 17th, as part of the Virginia Arts Festival. They’ve been together a long time.

“It’s a pretty odd combination of talents,” he acknowledged, “not that we have somberly ever talked about it. We’re old enough that if one had a heart attack and could fail to play or left the planet, I don’t know if we would quote-unquote try to continue and replace one of ourselves because I think we’re all so unique in what we can do.”

He and Madcat go back an especially long way:

“It is amazing to think of how many decades we’ve been playing together, since ‘68. We’re coming up on 47 years. Despite his name, he’s such a mellow guy. That’s one of the things that makes it easy.

“He grew up very close to downtown Chicago. In those days, anyone who played blues had a name. High school friends gave him that name. But Madcat is completely unmad! That’s what’s so funny. He’s a meditator, he’s extremely mellow. He’s just completely laid back and he’s in great shape. I admire the fact that he hardly seems to have an ounce of fat on him and he’s the oldest one in the group.”

Chris Brubeck is himself a scion of music royalty—his dad was jazz legend Dave Brubeck. Like his father, he is a musical explorer, not content to stay pigeonholed in any particular box. A look at his very busy schedule shows a remarkable diversity of performing situations—with Triple Play, The Brubeck Brothers, solo and with symphony orchestras.

“It’s pretty insane,” he said. “And factor in that when I’m not on the road in one of those situations, then I’m composing. And usually I’m on a deadline. But the latest thing is that I’m wrapping up a guitar concerto that I was commissioned to write for Sharon Isbin. Amongst the world of known classical guitar players, she’s very near the top. She’s really a trailblazer. She looks for composers, likes to challenge herself with new pieces and get commissions and get them recorded.

“I’m also the composer in residence with the New Haven Symphony and I’m working on that piece now. And I just got a phone call today to write a couple of things for a different orchestra. I just finished a piece for the Muir String Quartet plus Clarinet.”

Although his dad passed away in December, 2012, connections continue to abound:

“I was playing my Trombone Concerto in France and they asked me to do some stuff including ‘Take Five’ and ‘Blue Rondo.’ And I said, ‘get me a good sax player.’ They got this guy named Guillaume St James. After we played together, there was a Q&A and someone asked him why he liked American jazz so much. He said, ‘Well, the reason I like jazz so much is because my father was thirteen years old when D-Day happened, and he was really sick. His parents took him in a wheelbarrow to an Allied field hospital. The doctors fixed him ‘cause they found out he had a burst appendix; they saved his life. And while he was recovering in those tents, he heard American jazz.’

“So his father grew up to be a country doctor and an amateur jazz musician and Guillaume grew up going on housecalls with him. His father would play 8-tracks in the little car, and Dave Brubeck is what he played the most. I didn’t know this. I’d literally just met the guy and we were onstage talking to the audience. And I said, ‘my father was in General Patton’s army and he was in your part of the world then.’ So it struck us that both of our fathers were in northern France at that time during World War II.

“There happened to be a guy from the American embassy in the audience who said, ‘You guys should write a piece together saluting, from an American and French point of view, this great experience. And the state department will get behind it.’ And that really happened. We got to go to the D-Day ceremony. It was so amazing to be in that place. There were thousands and thousands of people and some guys who are 90 years old who had parachuted into those fields.”

Chris Brubeck is proud that Dave Brubeck’s last recording was with Triple Play on a CD released as Live at Arthur Zankel Center: “I didn’t tell my dad that we were gonna record it because even at that late age, he would get nervous and play differently if he thought he was being recorded. But it was one of those things where you couldn’t have paid an audience to be more amazing, screaming and hollering. And he felt the juice in that and started playing like crazy. When it was through, my dad said, ‘boy that was great Chris! Too bad we didn’t record it.’”

Chris Brubeck’s Triple Play
April 17 – 8:00 pm

Kaufman Theatre, Chrysler Museum
Tickets: $20.00; www.vafest.org

copyright © 2015 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.


Chris Brubeck’s Triple Play
PortFolio Weekly
February 22, 2005
Jim Newsom interviews Chris Brubeck in 2005.