The Midland Symphony Orchestra brought jazz legend Dave Brubeck back to the Midland Center for the Arts Saturday night in a showcase of this master’s art.
Because Brubeck had been commissioned to write a piece to dedicate the Arts Center in 1971, the evening was billed as a “re-dedication” of the Center in light of its two-year long renovations. However, other than a brief mention made by Maestro Woods, there was entirely no re-dedicatory ceremony in sight. Also, while billed as a Holiday Concert (“Jazz to the World”), it was the least “Christmas-y” of any Holiday Concert at the Center in recent memory.
Woods led off the concert with Leroy Anderson’s 7-minute “A Christmas Festival,” a delightful pastiche of sacred and secular carols, mostly from central and western Europe. The work was well received, and set a festive and appropriately popular tone, but as would be the case all night, the brass totally overpowered the paucity of upper and middle strings that has long been one of the few weaknesses of the Midland Symphony.
The rest of the first half comprised five Brubeck classics, arranged for orchestra and jazz quartet (which featured two of Brubeck’s sons), beginning with a fast-paced and furious rendition of “Summer Music,” conducted by Brubeck’s music director Russell Gloyd and featuring fine solos by clarinetist Linda Hargett and oboist Roger Rehm. The arrangements were generally pleasing, though in several cases the orchestra served merely the function of curtainraiser and closer to the work of the quartet in each song.
Next came the waltz “Three to Get Ready,” followed by a brilliant homage to Count Basie, suffused with great Basie-like piano riffs, and bits and bobs of legendary Basie songs and styles throughout.
Brubeck has long been praised (and only rarely criticized) for a certain intellectual and cerebral quality to his compositions, given his highly structured and unusual use of rhythm and form. But it was his truly lyrical and melodic genius that was featured in the popular song “In Your Own Sweet Way.” It began with an extended ballad-like solo by Brubeck, soon after which the quartet and orchestra began to swing it in that soft, mellow, patented Brubeck style.
The first half ended with the classic (in every sense) “Blue Rondo A La Turk,” with its wonderfully mysterious and devilish rhythms, and catchy melodic bits that you simply cannot get out of your head.
After intermission Woods returned to conduct the first of five more Brubeck standards, this one actually a holiday number where We Three Kings go soul-struttin’ along. It was fast, driving, joyous, and perhaps best summarized by Gloyd whose first words on returning to the podium were, “Well THAT was different!” The only other truly Christmas fare on the program came next, with the Lullaby “Sleep Holy Infant” from Brubeck’s holiday cantata La Fiesta de la Posada. Saxophonist Bobby Militello switched to flute for this endearing number, giving a beautifully phrased and swirlingly nuanced reading.
In trying really too hard to give the next piece (and hence the concert) some small bit of holiday connection, Gloyd related the New Testament story of the Pentecost miracle, but ended by suggesting that perhaps the miracle was merely the result of “New Wine.” Perhaps holiday concerts are the time to be supporting, rather than debunking, spiritual things. Similarly, prior to the song “Regret” (which Gloyd suggested followed “New Wine”), he made one more attempt at a religious connection, asking the audience to think of it as a “Fantasia on the Word Amen.” Alas for him, Brubeck was right when he named it “Regret,” as it is a wistful, almost mournful work. Brubeck’s solo held the audience raptly suspended, as if no one cared to even breathe for fear of disturbing the musical moment.
The concert as announced ended with undoubtedly Brubeck’s greatest hit ever, Paul Desmond’s classic “Take Five.” When conductor Gloyd introduced it as “one of the truly great Christmas carols of all time,” the irony was a clever wink to the audience, suggesting he, too, recognized how strained had been the attempt to find Christmas in pieces where it didn’t exist. This number having been penned by Brubeck’s long-time saxophonist, one of the most brilliant sidemen and soloists in modern jazz, it is not surprising that the sax takes center stage. Militello swung the highly familiar melody with great verve, leading to an extended drum solo by Dan Brubeck, at which his father was observed gazing in sheer admiration.
The standing ovation gave rise to an obviously planned encore, which began with Brubeck’s solo on the melody “Silent Night,” so softly sweet as to bring tears to the eyes. Eventually, the quartet and orchestra came in, highlighted by Chris Brubeck intoning “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
It was a glorious night of jazz-infused celebration, by a master who truly has spent a life bringing “Jazz to the World.”