Shortly before his death in December, one day before his 92nd birthday, the indefatigable world-renowned jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck was told by his doctor to exercise to stay in shape.
“Of course, as a pianist he wanted to really keep playing the piano and practice everyday, and he’s composing. There weren’t enough hours in the day for him,” recalls son Chris Brubeck, who performs Friday at St. Mary’s Episcopal School’s Buckman Performing Arts Center with his group Triple Play. “So I walk into his studio, and he had had an upright piano put up on blocks so it was the perfect height for him riding a stationary gym bike and composing and playing piano at the same time.”
Months later Chris Brubeck — who learned the day his father died that they had been nominated for a Grammy for a symphonic piece they had written together, Ansel Adams: America — says that one of the greatest gifts from his father was that same spirit of packing every day with as much as you can.
“My father started out as a cowboy, and you do a lot of hard work. It’s not like sitting around doing video games and trying to figure out how to get rich,” says the son, referencing his dad’s youth on the family’s Northern California cattle ranch. “My father taught me a lot about discipline.”
Brubeck, 61, has directed that discipline toward the family business, with a schedule packed full of varied projects. Just last week, he debuted a commissioned orchestral piece, “The Hermitage Cats Save the Day,” in St. Petersburg, Russia, and he was busy this week trying to complete another work for the Kennedy Center, with two more commissions waiting in the wings. In the coming months, he’ll tour North America and Europe with his brother Daniel in the Brubeck Brothers Quartet jazz combo. And he’s working with several groups, including the august Jazz at Lincoln Center, to arrange tributes to his father in the next year.
But among his many projects, Triple Play, Brubeck’s long-running collaboration with guitarist/vocalist Joel Brown and multi-instrumentalist Peter Madcat Ruth, stands out as something different. If the orchestral works and the jazz combos are a legacy business left by his father, Triple Play is purely Brubeck’s invention, a unique distillation of his and his bandmates’ love of old blues, New Orleans jazz, Tin Pan Alley, and even rock and roll.
“Triple Play is very much different,” says Brubeck, who mostly mans the piano in Triple Play but also plays bass and trombone. “Yet there’s places where there’s a big overlap. If we play a song like ‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?’ which makes sense from a folk, bluesy point of view, that’s also a jazz standard and is part of the Great American Songbook.”
The group traces its origins back to 1968, when Brubeck first met Ruth, a Chicago blues harmonica acolyte who had studied with Big Walter Horton at the Interlochen Academy for the Arts. In the ’70s, Ruth toured with the elder Brubeck and his sons.
Brubeck first discovered Brown — who like a generation of guitar players had first taken up the instrument after seeing the Beatles — through his accomplished classical work. In 1999, Brubeck, Brown and folk musician Bill Crofut recorded the CD Bach to Brubeck with the London Symphony Orchestra. Later that year, the three were gigging as a trio when Crofut died. Brubeck brought in his old friend Ruth, and Chris Brubeck’s Triple Play was born.
Working together whenever their busy schedules allow, the trio have recorded three CDs to date and have a fourth, a collaboration with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, in the can. Besides a bluesy undertone, the one consistent strain in the group’s music has been a willingness to try anything, even if that means deconstructing the beloved oeuvre of Brubeck’s father.
“When people see the name, they’re kind of disappointed when they don’t hear Dave’s music, so we’ll play something like ‘Take Five,” says Brubeck, referencing a Paul Desmond piece made famous by the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1959. “But there isn’t a drummer in Triple Play, so by the time we put our twist on it, it comes out sounding very different but interesting. Instead of a drummer, we have Madcat playing polyrhythmic jaw harp with his mouth plus hi-hat with his feet when he’s not playing harmonica.”
It’s an approach of which the ever-searching Dave Brubeck wholeheartedly approved. The father made his last recording appearance with the group at a 2011 concert in Saratoga, N.Y.
“I did not tell my father we were going to record it because even at age 90 he would get nervous and might play different,” says Brubeck, recalling the origins of last year’s Live at Zankel Music Center. “The gig was one of those incredible nights where the audience went crazy. At the end of the concert, he was like, ‘Wow, that was a great gig. Too bad we didn’t record it.’ It was so nice to be able to say, ‘Guess what, Dad, it isn’t lost.”
Chris Brubeck’s Triple Play
8 p.m. Friday at the Buckman Performing Arts Center at St. Mary’s Episcopal School, 60 Perkins Ext. Tickets: $30, available at the box office and online at stmarysschool.org/thebuckman. For more information, call 901-537-1483.