BRUBECK: The Gates of Justice
Dave Brubeck Trio; Kevin Deas, baritone; Cantor Alberto Mizrahi; Baltimore Choral Arts Society (Tom Hall, director); Russell Gloyd, cond.
NAXOS 8.559414 (B) (DDD) TT: 50:13


Mainly for fans, unfortunately. Brubeck's place in the history of West Coast jazz seems at this point fairly secure. Like many jazz composers, however, he has followed the siren call of the symphony orchestra. Unlike many, he actually formally studied, most notably with Darius Milhaud. Furthermore, even his jazz compositions and his blocky, chordal style occasionally inhabited a kind of limbo between the postwar jazz scene and Milhaud's polytonal harmonic approach. The famous "Blue Rondo à la Turk," for example, owes as much to Les Six as to Mozart. His classical compositions haven't made much of a dent, however, despite some beautiful moments in them.

The CD has come out as part of Naxos's "American Jewish Music" project with the Milken Archive. I hate to sound so parochial, but the choice of Brubeck mystifies me, since he's not now, and never has been, Jewish. Nevertheless, Brubeck conceived the piece as speaking, at least in part, to Jews in particular.
The Gates of Justice comes from 1969. Brubeck wrote it as a way of bringing Jews and blacks back together, in the wake of many Jews' abandonment of the Civil Rights movement and expressions of anti-Semitism from certain extreme blacks. It was a lovely gesture, but accomplished very little. Maybe Auden was right, at least here: poetry makes nothing happen. At any rate, one of the nice symbolic bits is its call for both a real cantor and a black baritone. For me, the most impressive thing musically was Brubeck's ability to bring out the similarities between Jewish cantorial chant and jazz soloing. Much of the structural underpinning of the piece comes from blues, particularly in phrasing and harmonic rhythm. Indeed, in general the music for the classical forces in the oratorio doesn't differ all that much from the music for the jazz trio. We find ourselves again in Brubeck's half-light of classical and jazz. It's a matter of emphasis more than of a true change of language. Brubeck's oratorio sounds less spontaneous than Brubeck's jazz - no surprise. Brubeck avoids the usual trap of the jazz man, essentially that of a miniaturist working in large forms. The music moves over a long span - many times haltingly, but it does move. However, the rhythm is also surprisingly clunky at times. Who expected that from a musician known for his rhythms? Furthermore, Brubeck's inexperience at this time does show. There's little textural variety. The oratorio could use more and clearer counterpoint. When Brubeck tries on counterpoint, the music tends to become thick. The jazz sections, fortunately, provide a bit of leavening. Here, the natural give-and-take of the players furnishes whatever contrapuntal interest the oratorio has. In general, I suspect very strongly that Brubeck's jazz fame rather than the intrinsic merit of the piece prompted this recording. The work is nice enough but bleaches out next to Honegger's Le Roi David or to any of the Poulenc chorus-and-orchestra pieces, let alone something like Britten's War Requiem.

Nevertheless, the performance is pretty good. Russell Gloyd has been Brubeck's conductor for years and years. Indeed, it's a little difficult to get up a performance of a Brubeck classical work without him. Cantor Alberto Mizrahi strains, but not at the upper extreme of his register. Go figure. He tends to push notes out, rather than let them flow. Kevin Deas, a very stylish singer, does well with an ungrateful part. Brubeck has him at the upper end of the baritone register, even at points that don't have to raise the emotional temperature of the work, although a high note seems Brubeck's only way to heat things up. The chorus does as well as it can with Brubeck's thick writing. Diction becomes the major victim. Still, one has a libretto. The recorded sound is okay, though not spectacular.

S.G.S. (June 2004)