Pianist/composer Dave Brubeck had already been on the cover of Time magazine when Time Out was recorded in 1959 (at Columbia's 30th Street studios on June 25, July 1, and August 18), so he was hardly playing to an audience of hardcore jazz aficionados. But when the track "Take Five" became a hit single in 1961, it peaked at No. 25 and stayed in the Top 40 for seven weeks. As well as propelling the LP all the way to #2 on the pop charts, this sent him and his quartet to a new level of mainstream popularity.
Brubeck, who had studied with maverick classical composer Darius Milhaud, was (and is -- he's still going strong) fond of using unusual structures and time signatures in his music, ideas other than 12- and 32-bar formats and the steady 4/4 (and occasionally 3/4 or 12/8) that still dominate jazz. Brubeck also traveled and incorporated music, especially rhythms, from around the world, and it was in Istanbul that he heard the 9/8 meter -- with the stresses divided 2/2/2/3 rather than the standard 3/3/3 -- that he uses in the first track on Time Out, "Blue Rondo a la Turk." In classical music, a Rondo is a piece or movement with a structure where one section keeps coming back in alternation with contrasting and constantly varied sections (usually an A B A C A D A etc. format). Brubeck sometimes alternates the strongly accented 9/8 section with bluesy, swinging 4/4 stretches, and sometimes alternates 9/8 and 4/4 measures; the effect is instantly memorable.
"Take Five" was written by the quartet's alto saxophonist, Paul Desmond, and uses 5/4 time throughout. As hypnotic as Desmond's breathy statement of the melody and short solo are, the piece is otherwise a feature for the lithe drumming of Joe Morello. He takes a long solo over Brubeck's steady pattern of piano chords and the simple, repetitive, superbly grounding (pun intended) bass line of Eugene Wright.
The other five tracks also have their charms. "Strange Meadow Lark" is a pretty ballad that's really not that strange now that 10-bar phrase lengths are nothing unusual. "Three to Get Ready" is upbeat and playful in its alternation of two 3/4 bars and two 4/4 bars. "Kathy's Waltz," a dedication to Brubeck's daughter, also mixes 3/4 and 4/4. "Everybody's Jumpin'" fluidly switches between 4/4 and 6/4 in a sort of abstraction of jump blues and bebop. "Pick Up Sticks" is more solidly 6/4, and grooves mightily at first on the tension between Wright's bass vamp and Brubeck's heavy accents, then entices sinuously with the mercury-smooth Desmond sound, then returns to Brubeck's forcefulness.
The emphasis on unusual time signatures shouldn't be taken as academic experiments or dry, math-oriented music-making, because Brubeck and Desmond always show a knack for hummable melodies, and the quartet as a whole swings without any sense of stiffness no matter what the complications. That's why, 50 years later, this disc remains an ingratiating classic loved by both jazz fans and people who wouldn't know a time signature if they tripped over one.
And now, for the album's 50th anniversary, Columbia has beefed it up in a Legacy Edition that adds a DVD and a 54-minute CD of previously unreleased concert performances from the 1961, '63, and '64 Newport Jazz Festivals. Now, eight concert tracks from a different decade are not especially related to Time Out beyond ending with extended renditions of "Blue Rondo a la Turk" [6/30/61] and a radically transformed "Take Five" [7/4/64]. (And, as always, I believe such discs are better released separately -- though, let's face it, that's not how the industry works.) But the performances are superb, and hearing the band stretch out and loosen up on this material is, as always, an unalloyed pleasure.
The main feature of the DVD is an informative documentary about the album. In it, Brubeck speaks at length about the creation of the tunes, the way the members of the Quartet meshed, and more, interspersed with snippets of video footage of the Quartet. He also demonstrates on the piano the album's "Three to Get Ready," with choices of camera angles available to viewers. (The seemingly obligatory photo montage is, as usual, nice but of minor importance.) Many albums get this sort of treatment, but few deserve it as much as Time Out. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje treasures the Dave Brubeck concert he attended at Carnegie Hall.