Dave Brubeck, Jazz Goes to College on vinyl

Here comes another audiophile vinyl-reissue house, this one a bit of a head-scratcher. Analog Spark, the creation of Marc Piro (and a successor to his Razor & Tie label), debuted a few months back with The Sound of Music (missed it) and will soon come out with Glenn Gould's renditions of Bach's Goldberg Variations (the 1955 and 1981 versions), then a slew of Broadway cast albums (West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and A Chorus Line, among others). And, for now, it has a jazz album: Dave Brubeck's 1954 Jazz Goes to College.

If you asked me to pick just one jazz album to reissue on vinyl, this wouldn't be it. But it is a classic, Brubeck's first—and, I'd say, probably best—album on Columbia Records, catching him halfway between his earlier adventurous sessions for Fantasy (some of which I like better) and his later musings in odd time-signatures (which I've always found a bit precious—yes, including Time Out, save for Paul Desmond's little masterpiece, "Take Five").

Brubeck (or, actually, his wife, Ina) came up with the idea of playing jazz on college campuses. It gained him fame and fortune, put him on the cover of Time, and spawned a number of live albums, most notably the 1953 Jazz Goes to Oberlin (Fantasy), which prompted Columbia to come calling.

Much as I'm a fan of the Oberlin album (in part because I went to school there and heard many concerts at Finney Chapel, where it was recorded), Jazz Goes to College is better. Taken from concerts at three campuses (mainly the University of Michigan, but there's also one track each from the University of Cincinnati and a return trip to Oberlin), it catches Desmond in particularly magical form on alto saxophone, unleashing cascades of arpeggios, seamless streams of pure tone, energized by more wavelets of syncopation than usual. (The first track, "Balcony Rock," an inventive improvisation with no set melody, is the highlight.)

Brubeck himself tends to stay in the background, adding clusters of color, and when he does emerge for solos, they're less plodding than they came to be; they swing. The band's bassist and drummer, Bob Bates and Joe Dodge, were new to the quartet, but that seems to have sparked the two leaders to loosen up and stretch out. The group interplay is much freer than on the Oberlin album—though not as much as on Brubeck's second Columbia venture, Jazz Goes to Junior College, which brought back Norman Bates on bass and introduced Joe Morello, his first East Coast musician, on drums and whose polyrhythmic zest would enliven Brubeck sessions for the decade to come.

I'm told that Columbia's archive says nothing about who engineered these sessions. Brubeck himself provided the tapes, so it's fair to assume they were recorded by locals, maybe even students. Whatever the case, they sound very good, especially Desmond's palpable horn and breath. I own a double-LP from the 1970s called Brubeck on Campus, which included this and the Junior College albums. The two-fer doesn't sound at all bad, but it's a sonic shadow of the Acoustic Spark reissue. Ryan K. Smith, who mastered the reissue at Sterling Sound, says he did very little tweaking with the original master tapes (which were provided by Sony). He also told me that he compared the tapes with an original pressing of the LP, and found (not surprisingly) the tapes sounded markedly better—and my guess is, this reissue (pressed in an edition of 1000 by RTI) sounds better, too.

Bill Stevenson's picture


Thanks for the great review. My favorite recordings of Brubeck are all live concerts, with the best, in my opinion, being the Carnegie Hall performance performed to a packed house during a blizzard in 1963. It would be interesting to learn how the vinyl re-issues stack up against digital releases of the same performances if you know for any of them? Although Joe Morello and I did not know each other, we both grew up in Massachusetts, and shared a teacher, George Stone, albeit at different times. So I have a soft spot for Joe on these recordings. He did some absolutely amazing things. He came to my high school to do a drum clinic (circa 1965) and in keeping with the season played jingle bells for us using only his small tom tom. To this day I don't know how he did that. Later that night the full quartet played two sets at the Monticello in Framingham, MA, and left a lasting impression. In my opinion, Paul Desmond was the only saxophonist in the post bebop era that did not sound like Charlie Parker was sitting on his shoulder.

jimtavegia's picture

was Sterling Sound and I am in. My fav mastering house.