A live concert is a truly wonderful thing. It allows you to see an artist at their most creative; unconfined by the studio, feeding off the energy and enthusiasm of the audience and generally allowing their music to go in many weird and wonderful directions. It’s also a chance to see an artist at their most naked. I mean, they’re only human, they’re nervous about making mistakes and they’re eager to please their audiences. In the best of cases, the combination of these two leads to a thrilling combination of unpredictability and excitement. The unfortunate drawback of live albums, however, is that no matter how much they try they can never quite replicate the feeling of actually being there. Gaps between songs, fade-outs, songs out of order, songs from different shows may all be pieced together and presented as one disc. However, with this incredible album, not a note has been changed from the live performance. Dave Brubeck’s seminal jazz quartet got up in front of a packed Carnegie Hall on February 21st 1963, played the performance of their lives, and all 1 hour 43 minutes is here, in order, across 2 discs. That, my friends, is something truly special.
I’ll repeat that again – they played the performance OF THEIR LIVES. There are many incredible things about this album but this has to be one of them: the fact that this gem of a concert was chosen from all the group’s live performances to be recorded, and that on that night everything just happened to be right. As a group they had been playing together for nearly 5 years – almost unheard of for a jazz group – and were so tight-knit they were almost inseparable. Their comfort and familiarity with each other’s styles and idiosyncrasies allowed them to loosen up when playing live and go a bit mad creatively. And go mad they did.
At Carnegie Hall begins with a stomping rendition of W. C. Handy’s perennial classic St. Louis Blues. Usually played in a meditative, bluesy style, the Quartet radically reinterpret it, upping the tempo and furiously shifting time signatures, trading solos and getting the audience riled up. It’s a great opener. The following two tracks are slightly mellower, with Brubeck’s Bossa Nova U.S.A. adding a Latin feel to the concert, and the standard For All We Know being the focus of some marvelous soloing. Paul Desmond’s alto saxophone had a remarkable and distinctive tone; light and floating, like a rippling wave or a gliding bird in the wind. His solo here is typical of that wondrous sound. Brubeck’s solo must be one of the most exquisitely thought-out solos of his career, owing much to impressionist and contemporary classical playing with dense block chords and melodic variations. Wherever he pulled it from, it certainly wasn’t from his jazz background anyway. It continues for a mesmerizing 4 or 5 minutes before recapping the theme, with the audience really showing their appreciation for this one with an extended applause break. As if the bar wasn’t set high enough already, the following song exceeds all expectations.
It’s somewhere around here, claim the liner notes, that the concert goes from being a great concert to a truly mesmerizing one. It’s the standard Pennies From Heaven, and much like the opener it’s given a bouncy, swinging feel. Joe Morello’s manic drumming sends the song over boiling point right from the beginning. In contrast to the previous track, Desmond’s saxophone is far-reaching and very groovy, Brubeck’s manages that perfect balance between melodic and developmental. Towards the end with the intensity building still, the rest of the band trades bars with Morello, who alternates between virtuosity and humour with a few complex rolls and ridiculously prolonged pauses. There is rapturous applause when the track wraps up, and rightly so. Once again, it’s worth remembering that the album is live, in order and in real time. The audience’s enthusiasm is OUR enthusiasm, their wonder is our wonder. We’re hearing this amazing recording for the first time, as if live, and it would be perfectly justifiable for us to break into applause too.
The first disc ends with a swinging rendition of the group’s classic Three To Get Ready from the fan and critical favourite Time Out album. Thus as the CD ends, we hear the concert having its “customary intermission – probably about 15 minutes” according to Brubeck. We then hear him exclaim “Thank you very much, you’re helping us along!” which to me really emphasizes how much the audience’s enthusiasm must have pushed them to be more daring and adventurous on this night. As the audience leaves for the intermission and start to chat amongst themselves, a faint voice exclaims: “Wow!” My thoughts exactly.
Second disc and the band returns back. Mr. Brubeck introduces the next tune, Eleven Four, played in 11/4 time. (one of Brubeck’s many notable points was his interest in composing pieces not in “Standard” timings.) He jokes that it’s hard to improvise in 11/4 which is why he mostly lets Paul Desmond do it, and they launch into it. Well, if it’s hard to improvise in 11/4, Mr. Desmond doesn’t excactly show it. He gets the crowd as worked up as a stuffy Carnegie Hall crowd is possible to get worked up with his cracking solo. From hereon in the audience just has no inhibitions left. What’s the point of being polite and quiet whenever the performers clearly don’t want you to be? Even Eugene Wright’s bass solo King For A Day is met with rapturous applause – this, a quiet, contemplative piece? (albeit beautiful and extremely well-played)
The last 3 songs are perhaps among the most treasured of all live recordings I own. Closing a concert well is always a challenge; closing it after the rest of the concert has become an instant classic must be damn-near impossible. But can they do it? You’re darn right they can. Castilian Drums begins unremarkably (or unremarkably for this concert) as a fairly standard jazz tune until Joe Morello decides to take a drum solo. Which lasts for 10 MINUTES. Not a typical display of showmanship, it quietly builds up and then erupts, dies down, slowly develops and bursts forth again and so on. There are so many breathtaking moments the audience doesn’t quite know when and when not to respond, taking applause breaks every now and then, whistling, shouting their encouragement and eventually raising the roof for about a solid minute right at the end of the track. A crazed heckler shouts “MORE!” and everyone laughs. Brubeck, in his gentle humour, says they won’t ask much of Joe on the following piece as “all he has to do is play in 9/8 time,” at which point they launch into Blue Rondo A La Turk and we realize he was joking. Another favourite from Time Out, this version begins at an almost-impossible speed and doesn’t look back. Far from struggling with such a difficult piece in such a difficult tempo at a ridiculous pace, the band completely gave their all in the finest treatment of their own material to date. The playful hopping from 9/8 to 4/4 time signature was never more exciting, the expositional playing was never as colourful. An exceptional performance, and what would be a worthy closer except for the encore. The band probably couldn’t get away without playing their signature tune Take Five, (a massive seller back in 1959 and one of the most well-known jazz pieces: YouTube it, you’ve probably heard it somewhere before) and rather than being reluctant to play the one song that catapulted them into the public eye, they revel in it. Take Five is given a revamp too, with a faster tempo and one of Brubeck’s odd solos. With the audience barely able to contain themselves the theme is recapped, and like all good things, the concert comes to its end. Thanking the band, the audience and sounding genuinely bedazzled, Brubeck closes the second CD and thus the concert as a whole.
As I said before, there are many remarkable things about this album. The fact that it presents the entire concert in sequence with song intros and audience noises intact allows you to truly experience the atmosphere in Carnegie Hall on that night back in 1963. We can hear Brubeck as he chats to the audience and we can hear the gratitude in his voice for the audience being so great; it’s almost acceptable to consider it a personal thanks for listening so attentively here and now. And of course, the caliber of the Quartet’s playing on this occasion was beyond comparison. There are few experiences quite so mesmerizing, unique and truly special as this album.
Words - Adam