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Television Review

Brubeck Facts at One's Fingertips

On PBS, an insightful documentary studies the great jazz pianist.

December 25, 2001|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ask someone who has no interest at all in jazz to name five or six of the music's prominent practitioners, and there's a pretty fair chance that Dave Brubeck will make the list. There's an even better chance that he will be the only living member of an exclusive lineup that's likely to include Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis.

Not only is Brubeck still alive and kicking at 81, he's also fully productive--touring (two or three appearances here in the Southland in 2001), writing music and enjoying a career that reaches back to the '40s. And that's the primary theme of PBS' "Rediscovering Dave Brubeck," tonight's hourlong, entertaining and insightful overview of a long, remarkably successful creative passage, enhanced by a series of interviews with Brubeck himself.

The show's title, however, seems a bit odd, given that Brubeck has rarely been out of the public eye since he became the first artist to be featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1954.

Rather than "rediscover" Brubeck, producer (and interviewer) Hedrick Smith has illuminated less familiar facets of his career, especially the pre-Brubeck quartet years, when the young, California-born talent was trying to decide whether to be a pianist or a cowboy.

Fascinating photos and film clips of Brubeck riding horses on his father's ranch will come as a surprise to those who can only envision him seated at a piano. Equally intriguing are early pictures with longtime, alto saxophonist partner Paul Desmond, as well as Brubeck's recollection of a hassle between the two that angrily ended their first musical association.

Another segment features Brubeck in his Connecticut home (where, he says, he has seven pianos), briefly demonstrating aspects of his playing style, reminiscing with wife and lyricist partner Iola Brubeck and rehearsing with his five musician sons.

Yet another segment follows Brubeck on his 80th anniversary tour of Europe--a triumphal effort (with the exception of a visually documented, ultimately humorous transportation glitch in Berlin) fully affirming Brubeck's remarkable audience appeal.

A number of comments from critics, rendered in Ken Burns-like, talking-heads style, are less compelling. The space would have been far more productively devoted to deeper insights into Brubeck's creative process, supplemented, perhaps, by a somewhat broader view of his work--especially his expanded compositional activities--in the post-Paul Desmond years.

There's also at least one glaringly inaccurate assertion in Smith's voice-over commentary, in which he implies that jazz artists failed to follow Brubeck's foray into unusual rhythms (a la Desmond's hugely popular "Take Five").

Trumpeter-composer-bandlea- der Don Ellis ventured even more deeply than Brubeck into complex rhythmic meters throughout the '60s and into the '70s via a series of recordings released on Columbia--the company that issued most of the Brubeck/Desmond quartet efforts.

That small carp aside, "Rediscovering Dave Brubeck" is lively and engaging--even for the non-jazz listeners who can recognize the name, if not the music.

Near the end of the show, Brubeck, in the last of a series of pithy comments, sums matters up nicely when he notes, "When I can no longer play well, and write well, I'm gonna quit."

Fortunately for real jazz fans, as well as for American culture in general, none of those propositions seems likely to happen in the immediate future.

*

"Rediscovering Dave Brubeck" airs tonight on KCET at 9 p.m. and repeats Friday at 10 p.m.

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