It’s fitting that Dave Brubeck’s latest musical offering is in Telarc’s Live at Starbucks Series: the Brubeck name has become as ubiquitous and mainstream as the Seattle company. Like the coffee chain, the pianist’s once trend-setting appeal to a youthful demographic (remember those early fifties Jazz at College LPs?) has long since given way to middle brow blandness. The Brubeck name is as close as jazz comes to "brand" recognition. It is ironic then that the combination sparks one of the septuagenarian’s finer discs in his Telarc run. Brubeck’s usually studied approach is here more buoyant from his plucky opening solo on "On the Sunny Side of the Street" to his closing vamps on "Show Me the Way to Go Home." Maybe it’s the one-offness of the date that provides the playfulness and refreshing repertoire (split 50/50 between band originals and standards).
Certainly, one of the reasons for the uncharacteristic high energy is the presence of Bobby Mitello. As he did on Brubeck’s other fine Telarc offering, 1999’s Night Shift, the saxophonist plays with flair and fervor on "Love for Sale" and "On A Slow Boat to China." On "Love Is Just Around the Corner" he pretty much swaggers and on Brubeck’s "I Love Vienna" (the stellar original here) he combines Desmond’s harmonic grace with the brawny post-bop swing of a Bud Shank. And does one even hear a touch of the modal Coltrane on "Crescent City Stomp"?
In the best compare and contrast, after Brubeck’s languid opening to "Don’t Forget Me" (a fairly forgettable performance), Mitello takes over. He quickly lifts Brubeck’s shaky melody into high Bird flight, spiraling sixteenth notes as the pianist, bassist Michael Moore and drummer Randy Jones sail with him. It makes for a different quartet sound than we’re used to (i.e., a la Desmond) - earthier and less urbane, imbued with a tougher skin with no hint of preciousness.
Of course, in the end, the leader trots out the Desmond war horse "Take Five", but it’s just for the applause. The best moments here remind one of the playful spirit that made Brubeck’s early recordings such a joy - a loose but together band, innocent of the pretension of the later work, and playing just for the helluva it.