In which I honor a jazz classic
To remember the illustrious musical pioneer Dave Brubeck on what would have been his 99th birthday, I present five thoughts on his quirky hit, both my favorite piece of his and my favorite piece across all schools and eras of jazz:
- It makes an unconventional time signature sound normal. The piece’s claim to fame is having been written in 5/4 time, but you would hardly notice or give it a second thought if you were not a musician (heck, maybe even if you were). The quartet on the original recording are in such tight sync with one another that the rhythm feels as accessible as any four-on-the-floor or waltz-time number.
- Despite the fact that the group’s namesake was the pianist, the piece does not feature a piano solo. This probably owes to the fact that saxophonist Paul Desmond composed the piece; it certainly explains the melodic, infinitely singable saxophone “hook” and subsequent improvisation. But there is also a great drum solo, equally memorable in its own way. The piano serves as anchor, tethering the composition (alongside the bass) to a certain structure to prevent it from running away with itself. If anything, it’s kind of the antithesis to the Vince Guaraldi Trio, whose solos are basically all piano.
- It’s pretty short for a jazz number. Given how prone jazz musicians are to long-windedness (not without merit; see John Coltrane), a five-minute piece falls on the brief end of the spectrum. The fact that it achieved massive success speaks to the shadow of pop confines and radio-friendliness rules which stretches across all genres, even jazz. It’s also what’s helped me to memorize the whole thing: I doubt I could have done that if it were twice as long.
- It’s got a lot of open, pure chords. Jazz is notorious for its extensive use of diminished, augmented, and otherwise dissonant chordal structures. This one stands out in stark contrast for its generally unadulterated three-voiced chords (mostly vi and V within the key). Again, primarily the piano’s job.
- It’s far superior as a stand-alone instrumental. Of course, this is an opinion, but some ambitious tributes take it too far. I’ve come across versions of the song wherein a vocalist layers lyrics (of a suitably breezy bent) over the track; and, while an elite few jazz vocalists have only ever strengthened the outfits they’ve sung with, I’m not sure I would want even Ella to improvise text over this one. I think it’s just better off on its own. The combination of instruments, of planning and freedom, creates all the atmosphere we need. (Okay, I could do with Ella, under the assumption that she would mostly scat, which would be an appropriate contribution to the piece’s ambience. But only her! No one else!)
If you can believe it, “Take Five” is sixty years old this year. Go have another listen if you haven’t already. It won’t cost you much time, I promise.
Image: The Guardian, 17 February 1958