it beats a sharp stick in the eye

From Bowie to Brubeck

December 03, 2020 — Gideon Mayhak


This one brings us two artists who shouldn't need any introduction, and about whom I feel woefully underqualified to write. As with previous entries, I'll focus mostly on what they mean to me and how their albums made it into my CD collection.

The Bs, part 3

David Bowie

While I have ambitions of eventually owning all of Bowie's albums on CD, I currently only have the ones often referred to as his "Berlin Trilogy": Low, "Heroes", and Lodger. I also have the live album he released between "Heroes" and Lodger, Stage.

I grew up hearing Bowie's biggest hits on the radio, "Let's Dance" being chief among them, but he didn't really click for me until I was well into my teens. Specifically, I spent a lot of time listening to an Internet radio station called "Punk 45 Radio" (part of the Network) on repeat, and it included several tracks that opened my eyes (or ears) to a whole new chapter of my musical journey. Those raw, crackly (they were recorded from vinyl) punk classics, some more obscure than others, were really something special.

I listened to the song "'Heroes'" sometimes multiple times a day as part of that playlist, along with "Joe the Lion" and several tracks by Iggy Pop (recorded with Bowie around that same time period). These and others really stuck with me, and I admit I bought a few Iggy Pop albums before starting in on Bowie's catalog.

A bit over five years ago, shortly before Sarah and I started dating, I decided it was time David Bowie enter my CD collection. (I very intentionally tracked down copies of the 1991 Rykodisc releases because of the additional tracks they include.) It proved perfect timing, as songs like "Be My Wife" would be playing in the background as I messaged Sarah at work. "'Heroes'" took on renewed energy as a love song (though only if you don't listen too closely to the lyrics). "A New Career in a New Town" became the instrumental anthem that underpinned my move to Virginia when we got married the next year.

While other songs of his may be easier to dance to or include on mix CDs (Sarah has included "Golden Years" and "Let's Dance", to name a couple), I feel so moved by Bowie's "Berlin Trilogy" and wanted to start there. I think it was the right choice, though sometimes I feel so satisfied that I hesitate to dig into the rest of his work.

Stage provides live versions of many Berlin tracks alongside several great songs from previous eras. While I know some criticized the original LP release as being too much like a studio recording, my 2005 reissue seems to help bring home what I can only imagine was quite the live experience. And as a bass player I can't get enough of George Murray's performance, particularly on "Stay".

What in the world can I do? I'm in the mood for David Bowie, and I should see about filling out his spot on the shelf.

Dave Brubeck

I'm sure selections from the Dave Brubeck Quartet's Time Out were some of the first jazz recordings I was exposed to as a kid. It's not that I have a specific memory, though I know my mom definitely owned it on CD at some point. Rather, who hasn't heard "Blue Rondo à la Turk" in a movie, or on a commercial or store radio? Not to mention the ubiquitous "Take Five".

But I get ahead of myself. I currently own four Brubeck CDs: the quartet's Time Out and Time Further Out; Brubeck's collaboration with Louis Armstrong and others, The Real Ambassadors; and his later solo Christmas album, A Dave Brubeck Christmas.

I think owning Time Out and Time Further Out is pretty self-explanatory. These are must-haves if you like jazz at all (and I'm by no means an expert; I just enjoy the stuff). These albums introduced the concept of odd time signatures to a wider audience, making them as enjoyable as any 4/4 you might be used to. You don't need to have any idea what's going on to sit back and enjoy, but they bring new joy if you learn about the underlying musical concepts.

For some reason, the bass line from "Pick Up Sticks" gets stuck in my head on a regular basis. The laughter heard at the end of "Unsquare Dance" is super relatable: that sense of relief that you made it through a complete take without messing up.

I picked up The Real Ambassadors about five years ago. My memory is fuzzy, so I don't remember if I read about it in an article about what would have been Brubeck's 95th birthday (he passed away three years prior) or if I came across an article about the passing of his wife, Iola, from 2014. I think it was the latter, because the two of them worked closely together on the project along with other greats of the time. I'm not qualified to rehash the history here, but I encourage anyone to at least check out the Wikipedia article to learn more. This is a powerful record, and pieces like "They Say I Look Like God" ought to move you to tears.

I grabbed a copy of A Dave Brubeck Christmas the same December I bought Ambassadors, on a real Brubeck kick because of the whole "would've been 95" thing. I have no regrets: it's such a wonderful collection of Christmas classics performed in his inimitable style--at 75 years old, no less! It's actually Christmastime as I listen to it now, but this isn't an album I keep tucked away until the calendar turns Twelve. I'm not against listening to good Christmas music any time of year, and this is some of the best.

Come to think of it, the closing track on Ambassadors is something of a Christmas tune. What are you waitin' for? Go have a listen!

On the next...

Coming up, I'll try to have my cake and drive it too.

"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them."

Genesis 1:27, King James Version

Tags: cd-listening, meet-the-mayhaks, music