J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Light and the Gates

When taking stock of jazz’s sacred music this Easter weekend, it became apparent that two of Dave Brubeck’s more important LPs are essentially unavailable on CD, despite his stature and commercial success. Surely, The Gates of Justice and the double LP The Light in the Wilderness, his Decca releases recorded with Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, are important milestones in Brubeck’s discography, regardless of their initial commercial reception.

The original Gates remains unavailable digitally, although a new version was recorded on Naxos in the 1990’s. Of course, it just is not the same session. The first recording is considered much darker, while the second omits some elements, including a love-it-or-hate-it organ solo.

Light was available on CD at one time from exclusively from one of the record-of-the-month clubs, but since most people are terrified of dealing with them for fear of being blitzed with CDs they did not order, it in effect remains out-of-print. Like Gates, Light is an ambitious composition for symphonic brass and choir, but it features more pronounced jazz interludes for Brubeck’s trio.

Both sessions are heavy stuff, and would never reach the audience that Take Five has. Their dated cover art does not help either. They do represent a pivotal point in Brubeck’s career, so it is still strange that a turntable is required to hear them. It was to pursue such large scale compositions that Brubeck temporarily put his popular quartet on hold. They also led to further such sacred works, including To Hope! A Celebration, a jazz Mass commissioned by Our Sunday Visitor. As America, the National Catholic Weekly explained, the experience would ultimately have a great effect on his life:

“The ‘Our Father’ was not listed among the parts given to Brubeck to set to music. When the Rev. Ron Brassard heard the completed Mass, he noticed the oversight and pressed Brubeck to wrote music for it as well. Brubeck’s emphatic response was that he was tired and going on vacation with his family. Something, however, stirred in the composer. On the second night of his vacation he dreamed an entire Our Father: ‘I jumped out of bed and wrote it down, because I knew its simplicity was working and I didn’t want it to get away from me…[ellipsis in America] and it’s so simple; but I heard the choir and the orchestration, everything.” The experience had such a profound effect on Brubeck, he became a Catholic. That very night he said to himself, ‘If this is what’s happening, I think I’ll join the church.”

A biographer could well argue that Hope followed a logical course set in motion by the spiritual searching of Gates and Wilderness. In his notes to Wilderness Brubeck wrote:

“I am not affiliated with any church. Three Jewish teachers have been a great influence on my life—Irving Goleman, Darius Milhaud, and Jesus. I am a product of Judaic-Christian thinking. Without the complications of theological doctrine I wanted to understand what I had inherited in this world—both problems and answers—from that cultural heritage.”

Years later, Brubeck would receive the Laetare Medal, considered “the oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics.” Light and Wilderness would be a nice collector’s set, making an important, if uneven period of his career available to his fans and students.

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