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Dave BRUBECK (b.1920)
Chromatic Fantasy Sonata

Five Pieces from ‘Two-Part Adventure’
The Salmon Strikes
Rising Sun

John Salmon, piano
Recorded at the School of Music, University of North Carolina at Greensboro’, USA on September 22nd and October 14th and 15th 2002
NAXOS 8.559212 [54:48]


Dave Brubeck is of course best-known as a jazz pianist, and as the author of such favourites as Unsquare Dance and Take Five. What is not so well known is that he was a pupil of Darius Milhaud, and, at eighty-four, has a substantial corpus of ‘classical’ music to his name.

The pianist John Salmon, who has long been a champion of Brubeck’s music, has assembled this programme of his works for piano, including the large-scale Chromatic Fantasy Sonata after J.S. Bach. Salmon himself, who is now on the staff of the University of North Carolina where this was recorded, collaborated in the creation of several of the works, and The Salmon Strikes is, the composer tells us, a tribute to him.

The main work on the disc, Chromatic Fantasy Sonata, is in four movements. Each one contains references to Bach, in the form both of actual quotations from the music – the opening cites, as you might expect, the beginning of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy – and of the thematic idea based on B-A-C-H (which in our notation equals Bb–A–C– B). It’s fascinating to hear Brubeck play resourcefully with these ideas, allowing jazz rhythms and harmonic and melodic inflections to crop up quite naturally.

This is an impressive piece though ultimately I feel it lacks a real emotional and aesthetic centre. It also tends to drift rather, particularly the first movement, and quite unexpectedly, I found Liszt coming to mind. This is in part due to the use of the BACH motive, but there’s more to it than that. The two composers share a fundamentally improvisatory style, frequently exploring ideas in a way that is dictated by their hands and fingers rather than their musical minds. In an actual extemporisation, whether in a jazz or a classical context, this is no problem; in the context of a work composed reflectively, it does weaken the impact of the music.

I do enjoy the final Chaconne, however, which, though easily the longest movement, is also the most disciplined because of the form. Mind you, it’s not a true Chaconne in the Baroque sense, more a set of free variants over a faintly modal jazz ‘riff’ or ‘ostinato’. In this movement, Brubeck shows great rhythmic ingenuity, and there are echoes of the Bernstein of West Side Story as well as an unmistakable moment of Take Five texture!

The sonata is followed by five of Brubeck’s Two-part Adventures which I was much more comfortable with. They are essentially miniatures, which show the influence of Milhaud and Les Six. Bach Again has a delightful melody, while Chasin’ Yourself is unashamed jazz. These pieces, not technically demanding, would make excellent repertoire for competent young or amateur pianists.

The disc is completed by Tritonis, a gritty and quite involved piece based on the musical interval of the tritone or augmented 4th, The Salmon Strikes, a vigorous piece dedicated to the disc’s pianist, and the final gently impressionistic Rising Sun.

Salmon is the ideal interpreter for this music; he has a flawless technique, an absolutely sure sense of rhythm, and keeps a firm grip on the structure, preventing the waywardness of parts of the sonata from becoming an insurmountable problem. The recording too is excellent; the piano sound is quite dry, in a way that wouldn’t suit Rachmaninov or Chopin, but is entirely appropriate in this music, so much of which has a neo-classical feel to it. This is a valuable addition to Naxos’s ‘American Classics’ series.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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