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Opinion: New releases featuring Waits, Brubeck worth the wait

November 25, 2011
By MARK J. MILLER - Weekender Co-Editor ( , The Herald-Star

This week I review a new release featuring Dave Brubeck's last concert with his classic quartet and "Bad Like Me," Tom Waits' newest release.

"The Last Time Out," featuring the famous Brubeck Quartet with Paul Desmond on alto sax, Joe Morello on drums and Eugene Wright on bass, is a double CD released earlier this month by Sony Legacy. Featuring standards long associated with Brubeck and his band, including the quartet's seminal and Desmond-penned "Take 5," the CD is the last known concert by Brubeck and most famous band recorded Dec. 26, 1967, in Pittsburgh.

Although the concert wasn't recorded by Columbia Records, Brubeck's label at the time, the quality is on par with other live jazz records of the era.

By 1967 the quartet had been together nearly 10 years, with Desmond and Brubeck's association going back to the early 1950s. It's no wonder they needed a break from each other, but "The Last Time Out" also shows what happens when a great jazz band that's stayed together for eons becomes nearly telepathic.

Everything this amazingly consistent quartet was known for is here - Desmond's lyrical saxophone to Morello's wonderfully complex drumming to Brubeck's tendency toward unorthodox and dissonant piano chord voicings tempered with a classical sensibility. In this regard - fusing jazz and some aspects of modern classical techniques - Brubeck only had one equal in Bill Evans, the former Miles Davis-associated sideman and one of the architects of modal jazz.

One of the coolest aspects of this disc is Brubeck's rediscovering and re-invention of older material many modern jazzbos has tossed aside. Some of these gems are radically transformed and given the "Brubeck treatment," including innovative versions of Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train," the turn-of-the-century-penned "St. Louis Blues" and a mesmerizing solo piano turn on the Disney-associated classic "Someday My Prince Will Come," where Brubeck's closed chord clusters turn a tune associated with a fairy tale into a daringly bombastic and jagged excursion stuffed with in-your-face attitude. Ugliness has never sounded so beautiful. Outstanding.

"Take 5" takes an unexpected and delightful turn toward Middle Eastern modalism, as Desmond blows lines using an exotic Hungarian scale. Brubeck picks up right where Desmond left off, giving a tune they must have played thousands of times a facelift. Sweet.

Perhaps Brubeck was feeling penned in by the classic jazz format of his band, not to mention his offspring were becoming great players in their own right and soon would be performing with their father. Maybe he was tired of playing with Desmond, who had a major addiction to alcohol.

Who knows? At any rate, "The Last Time Out" is a bittersweet snapshot and fitting coda to one of the most influential quartets in modern jazz.

One of the most highly anticipated albums of the year, Tom Waits' "Bad as Me," released earlier this month, is his first studio album in more than seven years.

The album includes 12 songs, while a deluxe version includes three extra songs. The vinyl release comes with the CD and was only a few dollars more than the CD version. So, Waits already was on my good side right there. Waits has spent most of his career as the living embodiment of the "beat" school of wayward bohemianism, carving out a singularly novel career as a ringmaster of a surreal circus.

Waits' carnivalesque and skewed worldview that everything is absurd might be a lot closer to the truth than most people would be comfortable acknowledging, but I love musical eccentrics who not only think outside the box but live outside the box as well. There are no sacred cows in Waits' twisted universe.

"Bad as Me" continues Waits obsessions with the darker side of the things, with his use of unusual percussion, boozy ballads and gargled, Louis Armstrong-influenced vocals sounding worn and grizzled as ever.

What is different about "Bad as Me" is it's a potpourri of the different styles Waits has explored over the past two decades, and it's not nearly as cohesive as most of his past concept albums.

"Bad as Me" mostly consists of one-chord vamps with few hooks fleshed out by the dual guitar attack of Keith Richards - yes, that Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones - and Waits' long-time guitarist Marc Ribot. Listening to two guitarists with such seemingly disparate styles is interesting, with Richards tossing off Chuck Berry riffs while Ribot brings the avant-noise to the party. It's weird, but it's a soup that boils.

Nothing on "Bad as Me" comes close to Waits' two true masterpieces of his career - 1992's "Bone Machine" and 1993's "The Black Rider" - and Waits wades half-heartedly around the backwaters of America's musical past with a few nods to the present. The result is his most uneven album in decades.

While none of tunes are losers, there's nothing here that Waits hasn't done better on past efforts. There's not nearly the amount of clangy percussion I'm used to hearing on a Waits' record, and that's dearly missed. In fact, his nearly industrial and fascinating beats have been the centerpiece of his work of the last 20 years. Without the noise you begin to realize that Waits really doesn't have anything new to say. Only in the ferocious "Hell Broke Luce," a furious song about a disabled and disillusioned veteran coming back from the country's seemingly endless wars does Waits really exert any real passion, with his barked delivery meshing with rhythmic handclaps and booming, martial boot-steps.

With machine gun-like beats and God-only-knows-what-else dirty noise in the background, Waits finally seems engaged and passionate. The song is so jarring and unlike the rest of the album it stands out a bit like a sore thumb, which makes for an awkward moment - one word Waits has never been associated with. If the rest of the album were as essential and committed, Waits would have something really strikingly different here.

Still, Waits' throw-aways are miles better than most. "Bad as Me" may not be Waits' best effort, but he's still in the game.

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