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Dave Brubeck Quartet - Jazz at Oberlin Print E-mail
Tuesday, 30 September 2003

Dave Brubeck Quartet

Jazz at Oberlin
format: SACD
label: Fantasy Records
release year: 2003
performance: 8
sound 3
reviewed by: Joe Hageman

Image Let me just get this out of the way. I’m not a jazz-phile, jazz-oholic, or whatever you want to call it. I can’t wax poetic about this artist or that artist, or who had the most influence on jazz newbies. Am I a fan of jazz? Sure – who isn’t? Jazz is the type of music that you don’t really need to be in the mood for to listen to. It’s always waiting there to welcome you back after scouring the airwaves for something decent to listen to, only to be assaulted with yet more insidious “rock-rap” or the music industry’s latest loveable loser, American Idol reject William Hung. I don’t know what’s more pathetic, the fact that this guy actually got a record deal, or that the hastily slapped-together record actually charted! If I sound cynical, it’s only because I’ve yet to install XM in my SUV and I’m lately getting bored with my own CD collection – that and the fact that the latest crop of “artists” is a joke. No wonder no one is buying CDs anymore. But I digress.

It was on a particularly cynical day that I received my “care package” from containing, among other SACD and DVD-Audio treats, the Hybrid SACD of the Dave Brubeck Quartet recording Jazz at Oberlin. This five-track little gem was recorded in 1953 when (according to the SACD’s liner notes) “demand for the [Dave Brubeck Quartet] was light.” In order to actually make some money doing what they loved, the foursome decided to start playing college campuses. One such gig led them to Finney Chapel at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, which is apparently an “acoustically blessed chapel of an institution known for the quality of its music department.” Unfortunately, in listening to this SACD, I wasn’t transported to this “blessed chapel,” as the quality of the recording leaves one wondering if this is a true SACD at all. Although it is obvious there is more resolution than a 16-bit CD, this SACD recording is far from great.

One problem in the recording is evident straight out of the gate, where the listener is greeted with a subtle yet undeniably distracting background hiss. It sounds as if a snare drum is constantly being stroked with a brush throughout the entire recording. One might dismiss this as simply the fault of the original recording equipment, ya know, it being 1953 and all, but I’ve heard plenty of recordings from this era that don’t contain this flaw. Modern engineering can remove such anomalies; I’m just baffled why that wasn’t done here. It could be because of the recording (equipment or otherwise) or the venue, but either way, it sounds as if Paul Desmond’s alto sax is the real star of the show, as opposed to Brubeck’s piano. On “These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You),” Desmond’s sax is particularly haunting, while on “Perdido” the sax simply outshines and overpowers the piano, making it sound as if Brubeck is playing from behind the stage curtain. In fact, any sense of space is sucked up into an invisible curtain that seems to be draped in front of the quartet. At this point in my listening, I hadn’t even read the liner notes to discover that the original venue for this concert was a chapel. I was very surprised to find this out, given that up to this point, the recording had done nothing to convey the acoustical space of the Finney Chapel. Now, I’ve never visited Finney Chapel, so I can’t speak to its “acoustics,” but I seriously doubt it sounds as collapsed and small as this recording would seem to suggest. Just listen to the audience in the recording. When they applaud it sounds, as if they’re on the stage with the performers and like there’s only 10 people in the audience!

I’m not a huge proponent of jazz music in surround sound, but Jazz at Oberlin sounds like it could have benefited from some engineering of the multi-channel sort to help separate the instruments from one another and better propel the soundstage out from beyond the horizontal plane of the front speakers. The image is so dead center on this recording that at one point I walked up to my center speaker to make sure it wasn’t on.

By Track 3, “Stardust,” I began to appreciate the understatedness of Brubeck’s piano. Brubeck supplies the perfect amount of background simplicity, while still interjecting his subtle genius and obvious passion for his music. Then again, I continuously welcome back Desmond’s alto sax after the brief piano interludes, but maybe that’s because I’ve always been partial to horns. Oddly, the alto sax has more depth and spaciousness on this track, along with the piano and drums. Bass, however, as with the four other tracks, is hopelessly lost in the mix. Pity, too, as Ron Crotty certainly sounds like an accomplished bassist.

“The Way You Look Tonight,” by far my favorite recording, sounds almost campy at first, but then Desmond’s earnest playing sucks you in and makes you realize the significance of what these four musicians are doing, especially as it’s 1953 and they are playing at some college in the Midwest. By the SACD’s epic 9:03 ending track, “How High The Moon,” I’ve decided that I really enjoyed this performance, despite the quality of the recording. (Personally, I’d be interested to hear the original vinyl pressing.) I think that, in trying to evoke the feeling of the original live performance, the engineer missed an opportunity to create a quality, open and spacious recording from what has been heralded as a groundbreaking performance.

I don’t need to blather on and on about the greatness of this performance. It’s great; it’s as simple as that. Jazz at Oberlin represents everything that’s great about jazz. On one hand, it evokes feelings that Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Ron Crotty and Lloyd Davis (drums) are just four guys who decided to start a band because they liked their parents’ brand of music better than their friends’. And yet it’s blatantly obvious this quartet was brought together not by luck but by sheer fate to push the jazz envelope and create a sound that would endure for generations.

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