Categories: Life & Arts
Chris Brubeck has led quite an unusual life, when he thinks about it.
After all, not everyone grows up surrounded by groundbreaking jazz musicians writing, practicing and performing their most renowned works. But as the son of jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, it was not unusual for Chris to listen to his father, saxophonist Paul Desmond, bassist Gene Wright, drummer Joe Morello and others playing in their home.
“When you’re a kid, whatever environment you grow up in is the environment you grow up in — you’re not intellectually capable of comparing it with anything else,” Chris said recently from his home in Wilton, Conn.
“In retrospect, I wasn’t just listening to jazz rehearsals; I was listening to the best jazz musicians of the time — Paul Desmond is one of the most influential saxophone players ever. Joe Morello, it was debated for years who was the best drummer, him or Buddy Rich, in all the DownBeat polls. Gene Wright influenced me greatly, as far as the role of what a bass player does — we call it ‘holding the fort,’ keeping track of the structure.”
Triple Play, with guests Dave Brubeck, Frank Brown
When: 8:15 p.m. Friday
Where: Skidmore College, Arthur Zankel Music Center, Helene Filene Ladd Concert Hall, Saratoga Springs
How Much: $45; $5 with ARTSPASS. ARTSPASS is $35 (adults); $20 (students); $15 (military); $5 (children 5-17); free (under 5)
More Info: 580-8010, www.saratogaartsfest.org
As a kid, Chris’ baby sitter was edgy political comedian Lenny Bruce. He met Louis Armstrong. And although he doesn’t remember it, Miles Davis showed up at the Brubeck home on occasion as well.
“My dad was recently telling me about a time Miles Davis was playing basketball at our house,” Chris said. “I don’t even remember that; I must have been 4 years old. I didn’t even know that until he mentioned it. I was like, you’re kidding me!”
It’s not surprising then that Chris and three of his other siblings became respected musicians in their own right. Chris is perhaps best known as the bassist for his father’s quartet, from 1978 to 1988, but he’s played bass, bass trombone, piano and sung in projects ranging from rock ’n’ roll to orchestral music throughout his career.
To read about some of the visual arts offering for SaratogaArtsFest, click here.
Today, Chris remains an active orchestral composer — when he spoke with The Gazette, he was working on a commissioned piece based on the life of Theodore Roosevelt. He also actively tours with two bands — The Brubeck Brothers Quartet, featuring his brother Daniel on drums, and the jazz-folk-blues hybrid trio Triple Play, featuring harmonica player Peter “Madcat” Ruth and guitarist Joel Brown.
The latter band is probably his best known project among Capital Region fans, as Brown is a senior artist in residence at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. Through this connection, Triple Play landed its next gig, at Skidmore’s Arthur Zankel Music Hall on Friday night.
The show is one of many musical performances going on this weekend as part of the fifth annual Saratoga ArtsFest. The festival takes place Thursday through Sunday at various venues throughout downtown Saratoga Springs, and will feature nearly every discipline in the arts, from theater to dance to visual arts. Tickets for most of these events are free or discounted with an ARTSPASS badge, available at the Saratoga ArtsFest Center & Gallery at 516 Broadway.
Triple Play is making its first appearance at SaratogaArtsFest this year. The band is making it a family affair, bringing in Brown’s father, clarinetist Frank Brown, and Dave Brubeck to guest on a few numbers.
“The people that represent this festival knew that [Brown] and I play together all the time, and they also knew that I played with Dave, so they were asking if there was any way to get Dave to come up and be part of this festival,” Chris said.
“And amazingly, to me — Joel was talking to me, talking to my father, and with his schedule, at his age, it would have been quite easy to say, ‘I don’t really feel like traveling up there.’ But he thought it would be fun.”
Chris wanted to be sure to let fans know that this is not a Dave Brubeck concert — the pianist will be a guest in a program featuring Triple Play originals, which span the gamut from humorous folk songs to instrumental jazz workouts.
However, the group will indeed be playing quite a few of Dave Brubeck’s songs. The pianist is known for unusual time signatures — his standards include “Blue Rondo a la Turk” in 9/8 time, “Unsquare Dance” in 7/4 time and the Desmond-composed “Take Five” in 5/4 time.
“Ironically, we’ll probably do more of Dave’s tunes in this concert than he plays with his own band,” Chris said. “He writes fantastic tunes, but I think he sort of got tired of playing them. We’ve rekindled his interest in his own compositions.”
The trio of musicians in Triple Play have been performing together in different groups for so long that they’re nearly family at this point, as well. Chris first played with Ruth when the two were still in high school, in 1969, in the rock bands New Heavenly Blue and Sky King. They both ended up in the Dave Brubeck Quartet, as well.
Changing of the guard
Later on, in the late ’80s, Chris met Brown through the band Crofut & Brubeck, featuring banjo player Bill Crofut. When Crofut died of esophageal cancer in 1999, Brown and Chris recruited Ruth and began playing as Triple Play, at first to meet contractual obligations.
“One of the records we had done with Bill was a live record called “Red, White and Blues,” and since we knew it was a live record, I suggested to Bill, ‘Why don’t we get some extra fireworks and get my old friend Peter “Madcat” Ruth to play on it?’ ” Chris said. “And then, when [Crofut] got too sick to perform, we called the presenters and said, ‘Look, he’s too sick to make it, will you accept us without Bill Crofut, with Madcat?’
“So we did the concerts, and — they say necessity is the mother of invention. They turned out really, really well, and the response
was really good, so that was the origin, out of that tragic situation.”
Triple Play has since released a live album “Live” in 2000, and a studio album, 2003’s “Watching the World.” The band is preparing to release another live set recorded with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, further expanding its mix of genres.
“It was just such a total surprise that anything this fabulous could come out of a bunch of quasi jazz-blues musicians playing with an orchestra filled with Chinese
instruments, most of whose names I can’t pronounce and am unfamiliar with,” Chris said. “We had a totally enthusiastic reception.”