Sunday, 5 December 2010

Dave Brubeck and the Expanding of Horizons

A couple of nights ago on the One Show there was an item about how the English language has changed over the last 60 years or so. The usual Daily Mail nonsense about how we're all going to hell in a hand basket because we use Americanisms and how the purity of British speech is being diluted and blah blah blah. Leaving aside the fact that there are hundreds of foreign words in our vocabulary- bungalow, cul de sac, avocado, you've got to wonder why people really care? Does it really matter that some of us say train instead of railway tracks or sidewalks instead of pavements?

The whole point of language is communication; communicating a thought or an emotion or a warning. As long as you're able to understand what is being conveyed, it doesn't really matter what words you use. If you're the kind of person who gets their knickers in a twist about 'correct' manners of speech then you clearly fail to understand the concept of language as something beautiful and nuanced. Only a slabbering moron would want to limit the number of words in use, for they then deny themselves the pleasure of using language to the full. New words keep language relevant and engaging. People would look at you like you were insane if you started speaking in Chaucerian English because it's no longer relevant. Language is a living, breathing organism that is constantly being developed. You have to move with the times and keep innovating or you might as well give up.

Which brings me neatly to the subject of Dave Brubeck, who I had the pleasure of watching a documentary about on BBC 4 later that night. Brubeck was a man who was constantly experimenting- playing with time signatures and encouraging his drummer to lay down wildly chaotic beats while his saxophonist swirled round and in between with a beautiful crisp reediness. All the while he kept the pace going as he gently stroked the keys of his piano. He was greatly influenced by modern art and featured famous works and sculptures on his album covers. Listening to his music sounds a lot like being trapped inside a Miro painting. He was one of the first to see jazz as a mainstream pursuit and to take it out of the seedy nightclubs and into the concert halls, whilst still remaining wildly avant garde. He did this by garnering the support of students, taking his band on tours of campuses. This led to him being featured on the cover of Time magazine, the first jazz artist to win the coveted slot.

His most famous song 'Take 5' is written in 5/4 time, which gives it a fabulously jittery edge. Although it seems cool (if it was a colour it would be the bright white of the arctic snow), it's far from mellow. For one of the highest selling jazz records of all time, it's pretty out there and yet it's all delivered with such precision that you barely notice how radical it is. It perfectly sums up the Brubeck sound- a mixture of the familiar and the what the fuck?

Still going at 90, he isn't a man who is short of ideas. He regularly composes songs dedicated to his fallen idols and in the last few years has written music for the Pope, conducted choirs and had a go at penning arias and hymns, as well as continuing touring with his jazz band and recording songs with legendary blues and classical composers and artists. He's never stopped toiling at trying to remain fresh and, most importantly, he still looks like he's having a bloody good time even though his fingers are stiffened with arthritis. His message should be one we take on board- don't become someone who is annoyed by change (whether it's musical, linguistic or social), but enjoy it for the excitement it can bring.

All hail Brubeck- a man who wouldn't give a fuck how you pronounced the word 'scone'.

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