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Arts Desk
Every week on the air there's a special focus on one particular jazz album. Check them all out here!

Jazz Album of the Week: Time OutTakes Offers Revelatory Look at Brubeck Quartet's Creative Process

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November 30, 2020. There are some things in life you don’t want to perceive being made—laws and sausages chief among them. On the other hand, there are the yoga studio idealists whose wisdom suggests the opposite, that the process is everything, that life’s beauty resides in the journey, and that once you realize that, the destination becomes almost beside the point.

With music, there are some records you’d only want to see being made if driven by schadenfreude—sessions riven by bandstand politics, the clash of huge talents and massive egos and all the salacious discord illustrated in any given episode of Behind the Music.

But there are still others where a peak behind the curtain reveals something much more profound and thrilling, a window unto musicians on the precipice of creating something immortal, something that’s about to change their lives and, to a lesser extent, yours.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time OutTakes, the first release from the Brubeck family’s record label, Brubeck Editions, gives you that second kind of opportunity.

“Lost recordings” albums are somewhat ubiquitous in music, especially in jazz; they’re a good way for a record company or an artist’s estate to get a second bite at the apple, so to speak. Some are merely pieces of esoterica for record collection resume builders; others, like this one and Blue World— last year’s previously unissued collection of Coltrane takes, add value. Not by presenting dusty, grainy facsimiles of the more famous studio-approved versions but by providing the listener with another data point, a slightly different perspective from which to consider the music and the musicians.

And for those inclined toward speculative fiction, albums like Time OutTakes allow the listener to have all the fun of considering an alternate history. What if the takes presented here had made Columbia’s final cut? What if the versions jazz fans know by heart had been the ones boxed up and stowed away for posterity but not public consumption?

Among so many questions, here’s what we now know for certain about the 1959 recording sessions that produced the first jazz record to sell more than a million copies, Time Out.

To start, Brubeck, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, drummer Joe Morello and bassist Eugene Wright weren’t perfect, not as individuals, not collectively.

“The interaction of these immensely talented musicians created incredible music,” Brubeck’s son Chris said in the album’s press release, “but we could also hear that they actually DID make mistakes sometimes.”

It’s true enough; the cuts here, in many instances, are not polished to the cool sheen of those that found their way onto Time Out. But some, left out due to discrete mistakes, are as compelling conceptually and musically as the originals, if not more so. 

Take the version of “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” that opens Time OutTakes. It’s over two minutes longer than the version that made it onto Time Out; that’s a lot more room for error, and there’s no doubt the Time Out version is a much cleaner, tighter take. But the one here is not only longer and more expansive but characterized by more permeable borders between musical motifs. There’s the Turkish theme in 9/8—and an unconventional 9/8 at that— and the bluesy piano and sax solos in 4/4. What’s different here is that both Brubeck and Desmond, even in the midst of their blues-rooted solos, seem to make a concerted effort to hearken back to the Turkish scales that brought them to this particular dance. It makes this version of the composition, in some ways, feel like a more unified whole than Time Out’s.

The tracklist proceeds here as it does on Time Out, with exceptions coming only on the last two cuts; previously unreleased takes of “I’m in a Dancing Mood” and “Watusi Jam,” also from the original Time Out sessions, take the place of “Pick Up Sticks” and “Everybody’s Jumpin,’” both of which were recorded in one take, leaving no outtakes. 

Until then, it’s same as it ever was, but different. “Strange Meadowlark” is right at home here, batting second, but its plate approach is a little more relaxed, its grip on the bat a little looser. Take Desmond’s solo. Dutifully following that signature Brubeck overture that miraculously evokes a combination of everything on earth that engenders good will between people, Desmond’s solo is more meandering, more exploratory, more uncertain. He’s like a freestyle skier who hasn’t yet staked out his line down and through the field of moguls below; he’s literally just playing it by ear… and feel.

His playful quoting of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” extends for just about a measure too long, suggesting he’s lost the thread for just a second. But that’s not really it at all. It’s clear Desmond was treating this as a preliminary take, an exploratory mission; this is a soloist’s due diligence. That applies to Brubeck here, too. All the world’s math teachers should love these takes because it’s here that we’re really seeing the quartet show their work.

Extending the analogy, the “Three to Get Ready,” here is another scrap-paper kind of take; again, Desmond’s solo is in an early universe state—meteors of brilliant ideas shooting across the sky but none yet sufficiently hardy to survive re-entry or a smooth hand-off to Brubeck. It almost seems here that Desmond decided to lay-out a few measures ahead of where Brubeck expected him to and was caught off-guard heading into his own solo. Of course, we know they’d figure it out, like Olympic 4x100 sprinters who won’t let a trifle like a baton handoff derail them.

The “Take Five” here might be the most interesting for comparison shoppers. It’s almost blindingly bright compared to the original, slightly faster tempo, just all-around more frenetic. You’ll find Joe Morello was still in the early stages of figuring out where best to gain a foothold here. On the cut we all know from Time Out, Morello’s like a veteran finally seeing the whole field, but, here, the game’s moving still a little too fast yet. It’s this outtake of “Take Five” that provides the most revealing insights into the quartet’s humility and clear-eyed approach to making the adjustments that would best serve each tune and the album’s aesthetic as a whole.