Bob Brookmeyer turns 80 years old today.
To anyone with any interest in large-scale jazz composition, Brookmeyer is a figure of near-idolatrous worship. He's earned his place in the pantheon of great large ensemble composers many times over, alongside figures like Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Gil Evans, Thad Jones, and George Russell. The breadth of his work is astounding -- he has never stopped searching for new sounds and new directions to explore. Over the past several decades, he has also been an extraordinarily influential teacher -- Maria Schneider, Jim McNeely, and John Hollenbeck have all studied with Brookmeyer and have been deeply and directly influenced by his compositional philosophy. I was fortunate enough to get with Brookmeyer as well, from 2000-2002. I blame him for enabling my ruinous bigband habit.
Brookmeyer one of the greatest living composers, full stop -- that's not hyperbole, that's just how it is. He is also a tremendous soloist on valve trombone (Bob gave up the slide instrument at the earliest opportunity). His swing feeling is unstoppable and as authentic as it gets: he grew up in Kansas City in the 1930's, and first heard the legendary Walter Page-Jo Jones edition of the Count Basie band live when he was all of eleven years old. (Bob says the experience "gave me my first full-body thrill.") He is a true improviser, never reliant on stock licks or patterns, and is consistently inventive and surprising even on the most timeworn standards. (His only peer in this regard is Lee Konitz.) Unlike the overwhelming majority of musicians of his generation, he is as comfortable playing free as he is playing over song forms. When I was at New England Conservatory, I heard him play some spontaneous duets with guitarist Mike Gamble that turned everyone's head right around, Exorcist-style.
And yet, despite his towering influence, outside of the community of bigband fanboys/fangirls, Brookmeyer's music isn't widely known. Today's 80th birthday milestone isn't being celebrated with a week at the Village Vanguard or a gala at the Rose Theater. (To be fair, Brookmeyer once compared the construction of the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex to the US invasion of Iraq -- he deemed them both absurdly hubristic, misbegotten, and doomed to fail, was basically the gist of it.) Instead, the official birthday celebration happened a couple of weeks ago, up at the Eastman School of Music. This was not something I wanted to miss, so ended up taking the train up to Rochester for the big event, which took place December 2. It was really moving to hear these fresh-faced Eastman kids play their hearts out, performing works that spanned almost five decades' worth of music -- especially with the man himself seated next to me. Bob also joined the band for the closing numbers, "Sweetie" and "Seesaw" -- his time and his sound remain undiminished and unmistakable.
You can read Brookmeyer's account of this concert on his own site. I can attest that the goodwill he shows towards the young Eastman musicians is sincere and well-earned. Bob has a not-entirely undeserved reputation as being a bit of a curmudgeon (one of his best war stories involves getting ejected from the audience during a 1981 performance of Satyagraha at BAM... for standing up on his seat and booing at the top of his lungs... a mere 45 minutes into the opera)1, but that has honestly never been my experience with him. I've always found Bob to be warm, generous, and encouraging, even when I've at times pursued directions that run counter to his own deeply-held musical convictions.
Big City Blues - Gerry Muligan Concert Jazz Band
MP3: "Big City Blues" - Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band (right-click/ctrl-click to download)
Solos: Bob Brookmeyer, piano; Gerry Mulligan, clarinet; Jim Hall, guitar; Clark Terry, trumpet
Recorded December 18-21, 1962.
Originally issued on Gerry Mulligan '63 (Verve). Currently available on Verve Jazz Masters 36 - Gerry Mulligan.
The Concert Jazz Band had Gerry Mulligan's name on it, but Brookmeyer was the group's unofficial music director, "straw boss," and chief arranger. "Big City Blues" is classic Brookmeyer, looking backwards and forwards at the same time. It opens with the composer at the piano, playing an impressionistic prelude before walking an angular, harmonically ambiguous bass line. Then Jim Hall comes in with some Freddie Green-style quarter notes on blues changes and we're suddenly back in Kansas City, with Bob giving us his best Basie-inspired plinking. Jeru enters a chorus later on clarinet(!), and things begin to simmer. The band lays down some territory band-style punches, but then the head takes some sharp corners over the IV chord. The whole chart maintains a perfect balance between old-school bigband tropes and self-conscious modernism -- the apex of which is the disjunct brass line and grittily harmonized saxophones that follows Jim Hall's solo. (This passage sounds a lot like mirror-inverted Thad Jones.) Don't sleep on Clark Terry's searing, buzz-muted choruses, either. The drummer here is Gus Johnson, a veteran of both Basie (early 1950's) and Jay McShann (late 30's - early 40's).
Willow Weep For Me - Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra
MP3: "Willow Weep For Me" - Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra (right-click/ctrl-click to download)
(Ann Ronnell, arr. Brookmeyer)
Solos: Thad Jones, fluegelhorn; Bob Brookmeyer, valve trombone; Richard Davis, bass
Recorded May 6, 1966.
Originally issued on Presenting Thad Jones/Mel Lewis & The Jazz Orchestra (Solid State). Currently unavailable -- it's on CD in the amazing, long out-of-print Thad/Mel Mosaic Box Set if you can find anyone willing to part with it.
I can never decide which of the charts Brookmeyer wrote for Thad & Mel is my favorite. It usually comes down to a dead heat between this one and his version of "St. Louis Blues" -- but "St. Louis Blues" is on YouTube, while "Willow Weep For Me" is almost impossible to find these days. This chart was adapted from an earlier version Bob wrote for the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band -- but Gerry hated it(!!) and they never played it. The opening, with its mysterioso harmonies and aqueous tone colors, is pure Brookmeyer, as is the series of emphatic on-beat quarter notes at 2:15. That line Thad plays in the stop-time break immediately following is something fierce. I love the way the intro material is refashioned into a solo send-off for Bob, and Mel's brushwork here is to die for. The four-way improv on the final bridge is a deliciously surreal touch, but you can always count on Richard Davis to take things completely over the top. A lot of people have observed that Davis would have been fired from any other bigband for playing like that. The fact that Thad and Mel didn't keep him on a leash is a big part of why this edition of the band is so good. The final E minor voicing Brookmeyer deploys in the coda slays me every time.
The Nasty Dance - Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra
MP3: "The Nasty Dance" - Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra (right-click/ctrl-click to download)
Solo: Joe Lovano, tenor sax
Recorded January 7-11, 1982.
Originally issued on Make Me Smile and Other New Works by Bob Brookmeyer (Finesse Records). Currently unavailable. (Try eBay. Vinyl is easier to find, but for a hot minute, there was a CD reissue available on Red Baron, which I once made the mistake of lending to someone.)
Brookmeyer left New York for California in 1968 and basically spent most of the 1970s attempting to drink himself to death. Thankfully, he did not succeed. 1977 was his first clean and sober year, and the year after that he returned to New York, where he began studying composition with Earle Brown. The first fruits of Bob's return to composition came with the release of an album's worth of new material for the (now Thad-less) Mel Lewis Orchestra in 1980. That record is overflowing with joyous reinvigoration. (Apart from a notoriously bleak take on "Skylark," that is.) The followup, two years later, is called, wryly, Make Me Smile, and it is an altogether darker affair. "The Nasty Dance" comes roughly 20 minutes into this hour-long suite, leaving only scorched earth in its path. The chart is full of long, indeterminate glisses and trills, unsettling squeals and shakes, and aleatoric harmonies, much of it over a relentlessly pounding low C pulse. But ultimately, all this serves as a ten-minute extended concerto/blowout/meltdown for a 29-year old Joe Lovano. The written tenor parts are so well-suited to Lovano's language, and he plays them with such balls-out intensity, that it's impossible to tell just by listening exactly when the notation gives way to improvisation. When Jim McNeely, Marc Johnson, and a downright fearsome Mel Lewis are finally let loose, they sound nothing like a bigband rhythm section -- more like the bastard stepchildren of Elvin Jones's Live at the Lighthouse. But even in the midst of all this madness, Brookmeyer manages to slip in the hoariest of plunger-muted trumpet riffs -- and somehow makes it fit.
Yeah, Bob made a fusion record. In 1991. With the one and only Danny Gottlieb on drums. And not one but two synthesizers in the mix, both sporting ultra-bright DX7-type patches. (Bob has continued to use synthesizers in his ensembles ever since.) This should not work at all. But it does, somehow -- in no small part because the groove is a kind of shuffle (swung 8ths, not straight), so the rhythmic connection to Bob's past is less tenuous than it otherwise might be. The insistent low A quarter notes are a bit like the low C's in "The Nasty Dance," but transformed from pulse into groove by a simple anticipation once every other bar. (The bass vamp from "Say Ah" has a tendency to pop up elsewhere in Bob's work -- you can hear it on "Boom Boom" from New Works, for instance -- but it sounds wildly different each time he uses it.) The unremittingly sequential theme feels a bit like a nursery rhyme with Asperger's syndrome. Abercrombie manages to keep the thread going throughout his solo without being too slavishly literal about it, and it's great to hear him and Danny go to work on this stuff. Brookmeyer has stripped down his harmonic language here, focusing instead on horizontal motion, a trend that continues till this day.
Solos: Bob Brookmeyer, valve trombone; John Hollenbeck, drums
Recorded Jan 6-8, 2001
From Waltzing With Zoe (Challenge). In print.
Since the late 1990's, Brookmeyer's primary outlet for his compositions has been the New Art Orchestra, his own hand-picked ensemble of mostly youngish, mostly European players. This is actually the first bigband Bob has ever led under his own name! The group's drummer is the amazing John Hollenbeck, who necessarily plays very differently here than he does with his own excellent ensembles. "Seesaw" was written to feature Hollenbeck -- the chart's final three minutes and forty-five seconds are given over to what amounts to a classic drums vs. band battle, as filtered through Brookmeyer's recent, somewhat deconstructive sensibilities. A lot of his music for the New Art Orchestra works in a similar way -- stripping musical ideas down to their most essential components, then reconfiguring those components for maximum effect. Brookmeyer's deep emotional connection to rhythm comes through as strongly in the little details (like the placement of the piano-and-bass hits under his solo) as it does in the big moments (like the elusively displaced ensemble hits at the climax of the tune). "Seesaw" is one of Brookmeyer's most consistently propulsive works, and that is saying something.
1. Bob emailed me with the following correction: "it was after the interval for Glass and I didn't stand on my seat -- HOWEVER, it makes good theater that way so leave it."
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Happy 80th Birthday, Bob! Thank you. For everything.
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Marc Myers' superb five-part interview with Brookmeyer, published earlier this year:
Ben Ratliff's Listening With: Bob Brookmeyer piece from 2006.
Inside The Score by Rayburn Wright -- the classic, micro-detailed analysis of eight bigband compositions, including three of Brookmeyer's. (You own this, surely?)
Changes Over Time: The Evolution of Jazz Arranging by Fred Sturm -- this book famously uses four tunes as a lens for the history of jazz arranging. One of those is Jelly Roll Morton's "King Porter Stomp," which Brookmeyer arranged for octet in 1958. A new arrangement was commissioned for this book. Brookmeyer told them "I cannot guarantee one recognizable note" and he was not kidding.