Brubeck at Pepperdine-still the King of Cool

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The Dave Brubeck Quartet, with Brubeck smiling front and center.

Opening night for Pepperdine’s 2003-2004 arts season couldn’t have been more gratifying, according to the response of an ecstatic, mixed age, standing-room-only audience on Sunday at the school’s Smothers Theatre.

Legendary jazz pianist/ composer Dave Brubeck, 83, performed an engaging, energized two hours, with Bobby Militello on flute and saxophone, Michael Moore on bass and Randy Jones on drums. The four musicians, sporting white hair, tuxedos and bowties, were visibly as happy to be playing as the audience was thrilled to be listening to them.

Brubeck began his illustrious career in the 1950s with The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Over the last 50 years, he has received honors and acclaim as the creator of “West Coast Cool Jazz,” becoming the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of TIME magazine. The quartet’s 1959 album, “Time Out,” became the first million-selling jazz album in modern jazz history.

On Sunday, age made no difference. “It’s really an impressive performance, with the range of styles. It’s great how they all work together so well and they’re having such a great time,” said 12-year old jazz trumpet player Peter Asher, voicing the spectator consensus.

Asher attended the concert with his parents and grandmother, La Cañada residents.

The music group began the evening casually, strolling on stage as though they were in a living room to entertain close friends. The first note was delayed by applause. Brubeck gave a brief introduction of the musicians and then launched into a 20-minute rendering of the 1930 classic “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” The innovative interpretation welcomed listeners to a relaxed evening of harmonic wanderlust.

The stage was bare except for the musicians and their instruments, with a screen behind them lit in a mellow royal blue that cast a subtle glow. During each of the 10 pieces performed, the musicians took turns improvising with the compositions. As the featured musician played, the other three looked on. Brubeck smiled broadly, sometimes laughing with pleasure as he watched Militello, Moore and Jones have fun with the arrangements. When Brubeck took the spotlight, the other three became enthralled audience members.

Among their offerings, the group played an original piece that will be featured on their next CD. Brubeck related the story of the composition.

“We were finishing up a 50-day tour, with 15 one-nighters in Britain on a bus,” he began. “It’s not a small country when you’re on a bus!”

The trip from Edinburgh to Liverpool took the band seven hours. “I was told, ‘It’s okay, Dave. Next week you’ll just be in one place-in a London flat.’ I thought, that’s great-London Flat… London Sharp.” The idea inspired him to write “London Flat London Sharp.” Brubeck explained that he structured the fast-paced piece so that his left hand went down the keyboard in flat notes and his right hand went up in sharp notes. Before sitting down at the piano, he ended the tale with a light-hearted request to the audience, “Pray for us!”

Though Brubeck’s level of fame has reached international prestige and accolade, the Malibu show was still rooted in the joy of playing the music. Even in a professional, public setting, the group projected an intimacy that was tangible.

The performance ended with Brubeck’s renowned “Take Five,” from the historic “Time Out” album. A standing ovation called the men back on stage for an encore. Pouring out not only their talent, but their sense of humor, they began a jubilant version of “Show Me The Way To Go Home; I’m Tired And I Want To Go To Bed,” with Brubeck asking the audience to join him in singing the insinuating chorus.

The performance also marked the opening presentation of the President’s Choice Series, selected by Pepperdine President Andrew Benton. Benton said he was overjoyed at Brubeck’s appearance.

“I’m a big fan of Dave Brubeck,” Benton stated. “Last year I was privileged to see him do a very small performance that I will never forget. He’s a brilliant musician who never takes himself too seriously and always includes intimate moments with the audience. Pepperdine is so fortunate that Dave Brubeck feels a close affinity with us. I hope he can find his way back here!”

For further information about Dave Brubeck, visit his Web site at www.brubeckinstitute.org. To learn more about upcoming performances at Pepperdine, call 310.506.4522.