Time with Chris Brubeck
By Zandra Wolfgram
Chris Brubeck is much like the music he writes — serendipitous, unpretentious, and joyful.
Brubeck, 69, is a lauded American musician and composer, both in jazz and classical music. As a musician, he mainly plays electric bass, bass trombone, and piano. The son of noted jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck, in 1972 he joined his father and brothers Darius and Daniel in The New Brubeck Quartet. He later formed The Brubeck Brothers Quartet with his brothers and performed in jazz venues and with symphony orchestras around the world.
Brubeck has toured for more than 30 years. Onstage his irrepressible enthusiasm is matched by his fluid command of jazz, blues, folk, funk, pop, and classical musical styles. He continues to perform and record with his two groups, The Brubeck Brothers Quartet, and Chris Brubeck’s Triple Play. He has worked with many diverse artists, including Frederica von Stade, Benjamin Luxon, Dawn Upshaw, Bill Crofut, Meryl Streep, Willie Nelson, B.B. King, Gerry Mulligan, Bela Fleck, Bobby McFerrin, Stephane Grappelli, Bobby Womack, Tower of Power, and Patti Labelle.
A much sought after Grammy-nominated composer, Brubeck continues to distinguish himself as an innovative performer and composer who is clearly tuned into the pulse of contemporary music. Many of his "classical" compositions contain strong hints of the jazz influence of his father. John von Rhein, the music critic for The Chicago Tribune, said Brubeck is “a composer with a real flair for lyrical melody — a 21st Century Lenny Bernstein.”
Among some of Brubeck’s commissions are: Quiet Heroes: A Symphonic Salute to the Flagraisers at Iwo Jima, a moving piece for full orchestra and narrator; Mark Twain’s World: A Symphonic Journey with Genuine Thespians (a genre-breaking piece for orchestra and actors based on the life of Mark Twain) and the exciting Interplay for 3 Violins and Orchestra, with performances by violinists Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (classical), Eileen Ivers (Irish) and Regina Carter (jazz).
Brubeck’s compositions have been performed by orchestras all around the world.
His second symphonic CD, Convergence, on Koch International Classics features the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and is entirely comprised of his original compositions including Frederica von Stade singing River of Song. The CD also includes Brubeck performing his second major trombone work, Prague Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra. Reviewing Convergence, Fanfare Magazine wrote: “Brubeck’s skill both as composer and soloist is extraordinary.”
Born in Los Angeles, Brubeck currently lives in Connecticut with his wife, Tish. We caught up with him on a sunny winter day. He was writing holiday cards and anticipating a visit from his grandkids. Here are a few highlights from our conversation with one of America’s finest contemporary composers.
ZW: You are the son of a world-renowned jazz musician. Undoubtedly, you were surrounded by music. Did you always have a jazz mindset?
DB: It was definitely organic — the influence of music in general. The fact that there are six kids born to my parents, Dave and Iola, and four of us are accomplished musicians and the other two also play music … that was the kind of family environment I had.
ZW: Was there any thought of doing anything other than music?
DB: I never hated jazz or anything. I appreciated my dad’s position in life and liked it. I thought he was immensely successful in that world. But as a kid in seventh grade, where you go through theoretical rebellion periods I used to think rock and roll on the radio was really stupid and primitive, but then the Beatles and The Beach Boys came and I thought now we’re getting somewhere. So that kind of music really interested me.
During this time Chris was taking piano and trombone lessons and picking up the bass. He was in the youth orchestra in the region, so clearly, he was interested in classical music. But then a “very pivotal moment” happened.
CB: I didn’t make the freshman basketball team. I was crushed. I thought if I can’t do basketball, I want to go to music school.
Chris attended the famed Interlochen Arts Academy and the national music camp in the summer — which produced the likes of clarinetist David Shifrin, violinist Nick Avakian, and, a couple of years later, singers Jewel and Josh Grobin among others. Suffice to say, Chris was already shoulder-to-shoulder with a select group of talented musicians.
CB: The jumpstart in my life was, while most kids were screwing around learning how to drink beer in high school, I was playing all this wonderful music — so that was a life changer.
ZW: Sinfonia has the Sinfonia Youth Orchestra. What advice do you have for young musicians?
CB: Unlike my generation, we didn’t have all these devices to bury our heads in. Most kids have to practice. It doesn’t come by magic. You have to work like crazy. And, you have to have God-given gifts, be grateful and then you have to develop them and challenge yourself. I would also say, don’t narrow yourself down. Listen to all kinds of music.
ZW: And what do you say to emerging composers?
CB: Really love what you want to do and if you do all the work you have to put into it to get good at it won’t feel like work.
Chris organized a rock group with other kids who were classical musicians who also loved rock and roll. He continued to work, record and release records until about 1975. A few years later he joined his dad’s group as the bass player. He only stopped the group, because his son actually made the basketball team and Chris wanted to watch his games.
ZW: Clearly, you were innovative from the start with your interest in combining your classical core with other types of music that interested you, like Rock. I understand that after you wrote the violin concerto, Spontaneous Combustion, for Nick Kendall, that Time For Three wanted you to write a piece for the entire group. What was that process like?
CB: I went to Philadelphia to hang out with Time for Three to see what really interests them and find out what they get a kick out of, so we jammed together for a few days and I recorded the jam sessions. Obviously, if things came out in a jam session, they are intrinsically in their music-making wheelhouse. So, I analyzed these different elements and then organized the music. I call them little islands. It may be just four bars of music, and then figure out how to bridge from one island to the other and you keep going until you have a piece. I’m thrilled because they’ve played it all over the world. One of the coolest gigs was when Time For Three played it at Royal Albert Hall with the BBC Royal Orchestra in London and people just went nuts. Then, it kind of came full circle when I was in Europe on tour and I got a video from Nick and the guys saying, ‘Hey Chris, we’re doing the piece.’ They back up and I realize the entire Interlochen summer orchestra is playing it. That was cool.
ZW: All of your stories are incredible examples of how interconnected the music community is.
CB: Yes, and I have to say part of the reason that I’ll be coming back is Demetrius did Spontaneous Combustion with Nick Kendall. He also did Ansel Adams: America and the U.S. premiere of Brothers in Arts: 70 Years of Liberty, with a group of French musicians to commemorate the 70th anniversary of World War II. Demetrius is very connected to things I do and invited me to share another piece, so I told him I wrote Fanfare for a Remarkable Friend, and I think you qualify! We’re also going to do one of my dad’s most famous pieces, Blue rondo à la Turk and Take Five, which Time For Three has never played before.
ZW: What should audiences listen for?
CB: With Travels in Time for Three, I would say to be conscious of how elements of the personality of the players are projected into the music. Anyone who knows Nick Kendall probably figures he is a deadly serious person, which he isn’t — he’s hilarious. My music is very eclectic — there are elements of funk, rock and roll, Debussy, and Bach and it sort of sneaks in somehow and stews up together, and hopefully, they’ll find it fun. They won’t find it stuffy, that’s for sure.
Chris Brubeck and Time For Three will take the stage at Village Church in Destin on Saturday, Jan. 8 at 7:30 p.m. Purchase tickets online at sinfoniagulfcoast.org.