In this occasional series, I celebrate some of the previous century’s greatest albums, presented in no particular order and whenever I get around to it. The only requirement: every track has to be great. This is a personal list, ultimately, but one I hope proves persuasive at times or, at the very least, piques your curiosity about an album you may have overlooked.
No album has a stronger or more confident opening than this one, proclaiming with its first measure the kind of wild and unusual ride it will be. “Blue Rondo à la Turk” explodes with rapid-fire piano in a 9/8 time signature—quick (because eighth notes get the beat) and distinctive (because the nine beats per measure are emphasized not in the typical 3-3-3 pattern prevalent in western culture, but in a pattern its composer, jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, picked up as he passed street musicians in Turkey on his way to a radio interview: 2-2-2-3 (three groups of two beats followed by one group with three beats). Once it gets inside your head, it becomes instinctive, but in December 1959, when this album was released, most jazz compositions labored according to the predictable dictates of 4/4 time. In this historical context, an album with unusual time signatures on nearly every track was a daring move.
Recalling the resistance he encountered with his label, Brubeck admitted that he “had broken three of Columbia’s unwritten laws. All of the tunes were originals, whereas the label liked standards to be mixed in; they also wanted songs you could dance to, and I had given them all of these uncommon time signatures; and they never put a painting on the cover of a jazz album. So the company didn’t want to put the album out.”
Brubeck appealed to Goddard Lieberson, then president of Columbia Records and a pianist himself, who loved what he heard and, at his suggestion, a single was released in September, three months before the album, featuring two of its tracks: “Blue Rondo à la Turk” as the B-side and a Paul Desmond composition entitled “Take Five” on the A-side. It became the first million-selling jazz instrumental single on the Billboard Hot 100.
Jazz writer Ted Gioia, founding editor of http://www.jazz.com, has this to say about the single’s influence:
In the aftermath of Brubeck’s success, the “Take Five rhythm”—a 5/4 bar divided into a waltzy 3/4 followed by a two-beat kicker with an emphasis on beat four—was popping up in places far beyond the confines of the jazz world: on the theme to the TV series (and later movie) Mission: Impossible, in rock band Jethro Tull’s hit single “Living in the Past”…
Desmond often said that the piece “was never supposed to be a hit. It was supposed to be a Joe Morello drum solo.” He was surprised by its success and the difference it made in the group’s reputation, and, to show his gratitude, he bequeathed the song’s royalties, when he died in 1977, to the American Red Cross, which annually receives a six-figure income from his gift.
In the garage band days of my youth, my good friend Tom, a drummer, loved working in five and taught me how to feel that beat using this song as illustration. Many of our subsequent jam sessions featured that and other unusual time signatures, and I still notice when I encounter them in songs.
I have two criteria for inclusion on my list of Great Albums of the 20th Century: first, that it be a personal fave of mine…and, second, that every track be outstanding (that’s what disqualifies Synchronicity by the Police—all brilliant except for “Mother,” its utterly dreadful fourth track). I have listened to Time Out for decades and each time I do, every track is a pleasure to revisit. I never skip tracks on Time Out.
“Blue Rondo à la Turk” starts off with Brubeck’s solo piano in a four-measure phrase that ends with a 3-3-3 configuration that almost feels like triplets after all that 2-2-2-3. He’s joined in the next phrase, first by bassist Eugene Wright and, four beats later, by drummer Joe Morello. Paul Desmond’s alto sax enters when the song modulates keys in the third phrase, and the four play as one as the entire figure is repeated several times and they begin to improvise a little on its irresistible syncopated pulse. Every note played—and there are many—is dead-on perfect, and by the time the signature shifts to 4/4 for the solo turns, not quite two minutes in, you feel as winded as a sprinter and ready to stroll at a more leisurely pace. But Brubeck, ever playful, initially interrupts that respite with single-measure reprises of the opening 9/8, the transitions back and forth masterful and assured, before relenting to 4/4. Wright’s walking bass and Morello’s brushed symbols in this section provide a steady-but-swinging pace for solo improvisations, first the sax and then, four minutes in, the piano. As the song approaches its six-minute mark, it reintroduces that single-measure of 9/8, then back to the 4/4, doing that several times, like a train whistle letting us know we’ll soon be back where we started, which indeed we are, a few seconds before hitting the six-minute mark. It feels as if we’ve come home, the syncopation still new but now familiar, the pacing provocative but also comforting, and after the opening progression is complete, something new appears to signal the end of the ride.
The second piece, “Strange Meadow Lark,” is another Brubeck composition (he wrote everything on Time Out except “Take Five”) and is actually my favorite of the seven tracks. This may be because I was enduring a series of company-wide layoffs in 2007 when I purchased the CD to replace my vinyl, and my stress level was calmed in the piece’s first two minutes by the solo piano (employing unusual ten-bar phrases that sound almost freeform). When the rhythm section and Desmond’s sweet alto sax join in at 2:10, I would find myself in a better state of mind and ready to let the reassuring melodies carry me aloft. I could even smile at Desmond’s brief, playful tribute to “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” (he fiddles with the riff that accompanies the lyrics “You better watch out” at 3:21, which struck me as sound advice at that turbulent time in my employment history). On the Friday it seemed likely I would be included in the fourth round of layoffs, I had tickets to see Brubeck that night and wisely decided to call in sick, so as not to taint the experience with fresh anxieties. One of my smarter moves. Rather than wait in my office to be called in and axed, I stayed home and played Brubeck all day and then gathered up my discs and went to Trenton for the concert, which was, to everyone’s surprise, including Brubeck’s, way longer than expected—he praised the audience’s smart applause and appreciation and rewarded it with encore after encore. At the stage door, after all the other fans had given up, my patience was rewarded when he finally emerged with his assistant and graciously autographed my copy of this album and allowed me to gingerly shake his hand. The following Monday morning, I went in early, on my own terms, confirmed I’d been laid off, handed in my company laptop, and went home to put on this track. Brubeck saved my soul back then.
I won’t expound at length about “Take Five,” about which so much has already been written by far better scribes than me. But I love its five-and-a-half minutes of perfection: its solo drum opening, immediately followed by Brubeck’s recurring piano figure (now instantly recognizable around the world), over which Desmond’s mesmerizing melody works its magic (he remains my all-time favorite alto sax player) until he eventually grows quiet and leaves things to the rhythm section—Brubeck’s piano, Wright’s bass, and, at first, Morello’s drums, though this last instrument begins to spool off from the other two and becomes a thoughtful two-minute solo, building slowly, forcefully, and inventively over Brubeck’s and Wright’s steady 5/4 cadence, the string bass becoming a skosh flat on the high note that comes with every fourth beat, just enough to offer a mellow imperfection against the same note being played on the piano.
A few quick thoughts about the remaining four tracks.
In the next track, “Three to Get Ready,” the time signature, according to Steve Race’s original 1959 liner notes, “promises to be a simple Haydn-esque waltz theme in C major. But before long, it begins to vacillate between 3- and 4- time, and the pattern becomes clear: two bars of 3, followed by two bars of 4.” Maybe so, but more important to my ears was the way both Brubeck and Morello grow wonderfully more experimental as the song moves into its middle section. And Desmond’s sax, towards the end, sounds so relaxed, I’m tempted to think he’s playing it in a hammock.
Track Five offers “Kathy’s Waltz” (named after Brubeck’s daughter Cathy but unfortunately misspelled on the album). Set in three, unusual for jazz in those days, it provides an excellent example of what I’ve taken to calling “Swingopation,” that DBQ combination of a swinging style perforated by clever offbeat riffs. Underneath it all, Morello’s brushwork is steady as a locomotive.
The final two tracks—“Everybody’s Jumpin’” and “Pick Up Sticks”—offer experiments in 6/4 time, with another fine Morello drum solo in the former and Wright’s engaging six-note walking bass line in the latter, along with a stretch in Brubeck’s piano solo that sounds almost as if he were performing in Morse Code, using staccato pairings of eighth notes to punctuate the melody.