March 4, 2024

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CD review: Dave Brubeck – A Dave Brubeck Christmas – 2023: Video, CD cover

Dave Brubeck waited eighty-some years before lending his incredible talents to the celebration of Christmas. A CD that hasn’t missed an annual spin in my player since it was released in 1996, A Dave Brubeck Christmas features fourteen breathtaking solo piano performances that do indeed “help to make the season bright”. Throw another long on the fire while Dave boogies his way through traditional holiday classics and sweeps us away with calming renditions of classic yuletide carols.

My all-time favorite holiday album is a solo piano collection, joyful yet with a tinge of melancholy, performed by the late Dave Brubeck. In a world cursed with treacly, bombastic Christmas music, this album stands out for its heart and clarity.

I like it so much that I’ve often given it as a gift. A couple of times, I’ve recommended it in my column, which I did again recently, prompting a reply from a reader that brings me to today’s story.

The email started like this: “I read with interest, and with tears in my eyes, your article ‘9 things to like right now.’ What was especially meaningful to me was #8 — Good Holiday Music, which included, ‘A Dave Brubeck Christmas.’ ”

The writer’s name was Russell Gloyd. He lives in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka and for decades, he explained, he worked as Brubeck’s producer, conductor and manager. He was also the guy who wrangled Brubeck into the Christmas album.

“One of my chief responsibilities,” he wrote, “was to talk Dave into doing this in the first place.”

Dave. It was strange to hear Brubeck referred to so casually. He was a legend. After his death, on Dec. 5, 2012, his obituary appeared on the front page of The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune.

“Dave Brubeck,” wrote the Tribune’s Howard Reich, “changed the sound of jazz in profound ways, unexpectedly becoming something of a pop star in the process.”

Brubeck’s life story has been widely told, but the back story of his hit Christmas album hasn’t.

“Our record company, Telarc, said this would be the perfect album,” Gloyd said when I called Tuesday. “Dave said, ‘No, I’m not going to do it.’ I said, ‘Here’s the deal. We’ll go in the studio. If you don’t like it, we just dump it and no one will be the wiser.’”

Brubeck never got along well with studios, Gloyd said, and always resisted studio recording.

“The deal I always had to make with him was that there only would be one take on any tune,” he said.

So on a June day in 1996, at the age of 75, Brubeck appeared at a studio in Connecticut, wearing his summer clothes, and sat down alone at a 9-foot concert grand. Gloyd was in the control room, with the piano tuner and a couple of others, waiting to see what Brubeck would play. Sometimes it took a few bars to tell.

“For the most part we were playing name that tune,” Gloyd said. “If you listen to the opening of ‘O Tannenbaum,’ he starts playing a Bach chorale. We’re listening to this, thinking, OK, where’s this going?”

With Brubeck, you could never be sure. For one thing, though he wrote music, he didn’t read it.

“It’s the damnedest thing,” Gloyd said. One explanation is that printed notes slowed Brubeck’s mind down: “Dave looks at the page and he’s already figuring out the one to two thousand variations this could be.”

On that June day, Brubeck recorded three versions of “Jingle Bells.” One was jaunty and it appears early on the album as “‘Homecoming’ Jingle Bells,” evoking the mood and image of guests arriving at a party. The second one, “‘Farewell’ Jingle Bells” is more subdued, the sense of a party ending.

The songs in between change mood, each one not just a song but a portrait.

“Listen to Dave’s ‘Joy to the World,’” Gloyd said. “You hear the church bells. It’s not Dave improvising, it’s Dave painting a picture.”

When the session was over, Gloyd called Telarc headquarters in Cleveland.

“Everyone was on pins and needles because they knew Dave was reluctant to do this,” he said. “I called the president and before I said anything, he said, ‘How is it?’ I said, ‘It’s everything you could have wanted and more.’”

Almost the entire album was done in a day. Almost every track, as promised, was done in a single take, and every take was used.

Every take except one. Brubeck recorded a third version of “Jingle Bells” on that June day.

“It was the most depressing ‘Jingle Bells,’” Gloyd said, the kind you might hear in a bar at 3 a.m. “No way was that going on the album.”

But “Jingle Bells #3,” which Gloyd dubbed “Jingle (Expletive) Bells,” was saved, and he recalls that it was eventually included in an NPR Christmas compilation.

A Dave Brubeck Christmas | Between Records

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