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Dave BRUBECK (b. 1920)
The Gates of Justice (1969) [50:13]
Dave Brubeck Trio
Kevin Deas, baritone
Cantor Alberto Mizrahi, cantor tenor
Baltimore Choral Arts Society/Tom Hall
Russell Gloyd, conductor
rec. Kraushaar Auditorium/Goucher College, Baltimore, MD, USA, 25 March 2001 DDD
NAXOS 8.559414 [50:13]

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In the world of music it is often required that the musician defines himself by genre and role, intentionally placing himself in a box. So called “hyphenated musicians” are normally limited to the singer-songwriter or pianist-bandleader variety. It is rare to find musicians that are truly successful when leaving their expected comfort zone, even when switching to another role in the same genre. Rarer still is the musician that can successfully assimilate himself into multiple genres in multiple roles. Stan Kenton and George Gershwin synthesized jazz and symphonic music in different ways, expanding their respective genres with the infusion of other influences. Even so Kenton never composed a symphony. Gershwin would not have been at home as a pianist in a four piece combo. Thus Dave Brubeck becomes a true marvel. Aside from Igor Stravinsky it is nearly impossible to find someone who is capable of being a true musical chameleon in the way that Brubeck was in the 1960s.

By 1969 Brubeck had already conquered the world of jazz, practically inventing his own sub-genre of the “cool school”. He had synthesized Middle Eastern metrical markings and rhythms into jazz. He had also already applied traditional European musical forms, such as the rondo, to his small group pieces. In 1963 he started to move the other direction, writing Elementals for orchestra. In 1969 Brubeck decided to make an attempt to use music to reattach the societies of the American blacks and Jews. At the beginning of the civil rights struggles, the two had been natural allies. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. the two groups found themselves separating societally. This was composed as an attempt to mend fences, so to speak.

It is a large vocal work accompanied by a symphony orchestra at times, by a jazz trio at others. The harmonic vocabulary is sometimes that of jazz or the blues, and other times that of the traditional Jewish folk music. On occasion it moves into the realm of traditional European cantata. There are times when one feels as if one is listening to an excerpt from Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms; at others the derivation seems to be from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. On occasion it sounds as if it is Oscar Peterson’s trio. Then there are places where this could have been written by Brahms. The sheer complexity and diversity is astounding. This is even reflected in the requested vocalist background. Brubeck explicitly wants a Jewish cantor tenor and a black baritone familiar with jazz and blues traditions. The text is quoted from Martin Luther King, Jr., the Old Testament, the writings of the Jewish sage Hillel, and occasional words from Brubeck’s wife, Iola.

Perhaps the most impressive thing is that, even with the myriad of influences and diverse musician backgrounds required, this work is able to hold together as a single unit. It is a cantata in the compositional sense. As it moves from one movement to another, with the instrumentations and vocal compositions varying wildly, it will quote melodic material from earlier movements, often from a different style, to continue to tie the piece together. Largely it is seamless, with the juxtapositions happening at times when the previous thought has exhausted its possibilities. What seems evident though is that even though that particular thought is exhausted, Brubeck has barely begun. He is equally adept at writing a duet for tuba and male baritone as he is for the entire symphony orchestra and vocal ensemble. Some of the most fun places in the cantata are when the jazz rhythm section is accompanying the full orchestra. However the work is filled with poignant moments delivered expertly by baritone Kevin Deas, with his quoting of Martin Luther King, Jr. His voice expertly carries the emotional urgency of the text throughout. Slightly less strong is the Jewish cantor, Alberto Mizrahi, assuming that he is not intentionally using quarter-tonal scales. It seems as if he simply falls below pitch at times.

The cantor’s sense of pitch truly is the only criticism that can be brought to bear on this recording. The vocalists and instrumentalists are able to switch from style to style fluidly. In orchestral terms, they are well conducted and interpret the works well as a unit. In jazz terms, the “group is tight”. Even the packaging is noteworthy, with the full text provided with references to the source material where appropriate and photographs taken in rehearsal. There is an extensive discussion of Brubeck’s career and of his role in this specific program. Each of the performers is also given sufficient attention, with both performing credentials and cultural appropriateness highlighted.

If you are not familiar with this work, it is a triumph. This particular recording’s positives far outweigh the flaws. It can be recommended to jazz and classical fans alike without apologies. If not for Alberto Mizrahi seemingly having an off-night the recording would have to be proclaimed perfect. As it is, it stands merely as a very good performance of a truly great piece of music literature.

Patrick Gary

see also Review by Patrick Waller


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