What’s The Connection Between a First Family of American music and one of the most unique bass sounds in jazz? Chris Brubeck and his vintage fretless Rickenbacker. Well before Jaco Pastorius paved a flat fingerboard with creative gold, Brubeck discovered the instrument was perfect for playing with his dad, iconic composer/pianist Dave Brubeck. The fretless Rick has remained his voice through his next family-band incarnation, the Brubeck Brothers Quartet, with brother Dan on drums, guitarist Mike DeMicco, and pianist Mike Lamb. On the ensemble’s fifth album, TimeLine—a celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s historic 1958 State Department tour—Brubeck’s black-nylon-strung ’69 Rick 4001 knows no bounds. His walking lines ooze with upright warmth and wisdom, his solos are rife with ideas and expression, and his musical experiences allow him to settle into samba, salsa, funk, and boogaloo grooves with first-hand authenticity. He also plays his second instrument, bass trombone, on the disc. Along the way, the 66-year-old has also become an accomplished composer; from writing a pop song for Bobby Womack and Patti LaBelle to composing numerous commissioned symphonic works—all seen through jazz-colored glasses. “Composing is selective improvisation,” he reminds.
Chris Brubeck was born on March 19, 1952, in Los Angeles, where his family was staying at the time, due to his dad’s extended club engagement. One of six children, he began playing piano at age five at the insistence of his dad, who wanted his offspring to have proper musicianship skills, in case they wanted to pursue music. Brubeck remembers sitting under his dad’s grand piano when the Dave Brubeck Quartet rehearsed at the family home. “Eugene Wright would store his bass under the piano, and I remember hitting the strings and feeling the vibrations,” he says. When Chris was in 4th grade, the family relocated to Connecticut as the quartet had more gigs on the East Coast. At that point, older brothers Darius and Mike were playing trumpet and sax, so Chris opted for trombone, as a fan of Louis Armstrong trombonist Trummy Young. When Darius began playing guitar, inspired by Bob Dylan, he taught Chris (then in 6th grade) some basics. “At one point he said, ‘I’ve got a couple of gigs coming up with my pop group, and you know some guitar. Would you be interested in playing electric bass for us?’ I was 11, and it sounded like fun.” With his dad being a Baldwin artist, his first setup was a solid-body bass and an amp from the company.
For high school, Brubeck attended the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, majoring in classical bass trombone, and was in the new jazz program’s big band, with Peter Erskine on drums. Through school and after graduating, he continued to play bass guitar, both in rock bands with classmates and as a guest on a few of his dad’s sides. One of the rock groups, New Heavenly Blue, cut a couple of albums for RCA and Atlantic. When the band dissolved in 1975, Chris and half the members went on to form the funk–rock–jazz unit Sky King. Later discovered by Steve Cropper, they signed to Columbia and recorded in Memphis. Chris, who played his ’59 Fender Precision and co-wrote most of the songs, got to double on trombone with the Tower Of Power horns, who came by for a session when in town. When Sky King broke up in 1977, Brubeck Sr. saw that Chris was down and said, “You should play in my group” Thus began a four-decade journey that serves as our departure point.
What was it like playing bass with your dad?
It was a great learning experience and a heck of a lot of fun, including some landmark concerts all over the world. Dad was from the era before Herbie Hancock, when pianists still played the root in their left hand, so you either played his notes or you were wrong. But that hipped me to listening closely and learning bass and chordal patterns. One of his favorite phrases was, “Chris, you have to hold the fort,” and I believe that remains true. The bassist in a jazz band is the one most responsible for the foundation—maintaining the chord structure and keeping basic time.
Who else was in your circle of key bass influences?
Gene Wright, of course. I recently got to visit him in Los Angeles; he’s 90 and doing well, surrounded by his basses. He was the biggest influence on me with regard to playing walking bass lines and the blues, and being a foundational, support type of bassist. On the electric bass side, it was Jamerson at Motown, Rocco with Tower Of Power, and Paul McCartney’s melodic lines with the Beatles. I loved Larry Graham with Sly Stone and his own bands, although I’m not a slapper. And I got the see and be blown away by Stanley Clarke with Return To Forever and Jaco with Weather Report. But mainly I’d characterize myself as a jazz and R&B groove guy.
How did you come to play fretless?
Even before I first played jazz with my dad, I was thinking it would be cool to have a fretless bass in a rock band—being able to slide into notes and have a meaningful vibrato. When I’d hear electric bass on jazz records or the Tonight Show Band, something sounded not quite right. I realized part of the sound of jazz was having some pitch inaccuracy on the upright; that was sterilized out with a fretted electric bass. So, in 1970 or ’71 I was in New York City, and I went to 48th Street to see if any of the music stores had one. One store, I forget which, had a fretless Fender Precision and a fretless Rickenbacker 4001 in the window. I tried both basses, but the Rick had black tapewound strings, which sounded jazzier. So I bought it, and when I joined my dad’s band, I started playing it exclusively.
It remains your main bass. What can you reveal about it?
Well, I’ve certainly put some miles on it. At one point, I had played [Dave Brubeck’s] “Take Five” so many times that there were pits in the fingerboard at the Eb, Bb, and Db, requiring the board to be shaved down [laughs]. Soon after I got it, I had the bridge pickup replaced with a Bartolini J-bass pickup to give me clarity in boomy rooms, but I rarely use it. Mainly, I use the original “toaster” neck pickup, and I play up over it, near the neck, which—combined with Rotosound Tru Bass black nylon strings—is what gives me an upright-like sound. About 20 years ago, the bass fell off the stage, and the headstock cracked and was separating. The repairman made a new black “cap” that held together the five vertical pieces of the headstock, and he put on new tuners—so I lost the Rick logo as a result. I also have a backup in the same Mapleglo finish. A postman told me he bought a fretless Rick because he saw me playing one, and I convinced him to sell it to me!
What was the concept for TimeLine?
We wanted to mark the 60th Anniversary of my dad’s 1958 State Department tour behind the Iron Curtain and in the Middle East. We chose songs from that era, like “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” which he wrote after seeing Turkish street musicians on the tour, and “Thank You,” which he wrote after visiting Chopin’s birthplace in Poland. Two of the songs are from The Real Ambassadors [1962, Columbia], a musical my father and mother wrote about their State Department tour experiences, which featured the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Louis Armstrong and his band, Carmen McRae, and others.
“Thank You,” “Far More Blue,” and “Tritonus” are all in 5/4. Has that become second nature to you?
It has; I think I’ve played 5/4 in all possible subdivisions. There have been times when the quartet is rehearsing, and I’ll say, “Hey, let’s try this in five,” and they’ll say, “We are in five!” Probably the most challenging time project for me was Trio Brubeck [1993, Music-Masters], with my dad, where we played some three against two. The time would stretch like a rubber band that you hoped wouldn’t break. Actually, my dad wrote “Thank You” in four; we changed it to five for this record. We also started “Far More Blue” in four and then went to the original 5/4 for the solos. As for “Tritonus,” I recorded it with my dad and he would play it fast, essentially as a blues. We slowed it down and added more chord changes and turnarounds.
You play bass trombone solos on a few tunes, and sing and solo on “Since Love Had Its Way.” Let’s talk about your solo side.
What Eugene Wright was to my groove side, [alto saxophonist] Paul Desmond was to my solo side. In an era when everyone else was trying to emulate Charlie Parker’s blazing speed, he made a conscious decision to be stylistically unique. He focused on being lyrical and melodic. [Guitarist] Jim Hall said Paul was the only musician he knew who could improvise a melody that was more beautiful than the song’s melody. I try to have that same focus improvising on both bass and trombone, although obviously there’s a long-tone sustain element on trombone you can’t get on bass. With regard to singing while soloing on bass, I’ve found I play better ideas if I’m thinking about singing something to myself and having my hands keep up with my head, rather than the reverse. I’ll do one or two sing-and-play solos a show, and I notice the audience will zoom in on me much more intently. It creates a connection.
You guys bring the funk on “The Golden Horn.”
Playing that song with my dad, it was always high energy all the way through. Here, we decided after we got through burning head we would relax, open it up, and go into half-time funk. Chuck came up with the crazy lick in between solos, which we referred to as “the Flying Monkeys of Oz,” because that’s what it reminded us of. The fun side of being jazzers in our age group is we can transition into funk or rock naturally.
You, Chuck, and Mike each contribute originals, which adds to the record’s contemporary side.
Right. Mike’s tune, “North Coast,” fits the travel vibe of the record, showcasing the sense of togetherness in our band sound, of which we’re most proud. My song, “3 Wise Men,” has a bit of a Middle Eastern flavor to tie into the record’s theme. I wrote it on piano, digging into the tension that occurs from major- and minor-3rd movement in different octaves—sort of like Thelonius Monk’s “Misterioso” [Misterioso, 1958, Riverside]. Chuck’s tune, “Boundward Home,” fits the overall theme, and we wanted to have a tune in three. And his “Prime Directive,” which refers to something you get from the State Department on how to behave on a diplomatic tour, was the most fun track to play. The melody sounds like it could be an Allman Brothers instrumental, and Chuck added a montuno section that led me to overdub my tumbao on acoustic bass, which I’ll occasionally do, although I’m not a trained upright player.
I’ll be touring with the Brubeck Brothers Quartet in support of the record, as well as doing dates with my Americana trio, Triple Play, with Joel Brown on guitar and Peter Madcat Ruth on harmonica. August was the premiere of my double concerto, Pas de Deux: Concerto for Violin, Violincello & Orchestra. As long as I’m playing or writing, I have no complaints!
Brubeck Brothers Quartet, TimeLine [2018, Blue Forest]; Sky King, Secret Sauce [1975, Columbia]
Bass Fretless 1969 Rickenbacker 4001
Rig SWR Electric Blue bass head, assorted cabinets
Strings Rotosound Tru Bass 88 (.065, .075, .100, .115)
Recording TimeLine Direct plus miked SWR Electric Blue head and unknown 12" cabinet, with both tracks blended