Jazz Café review, December 2023

Category: DBQ Reviews

Darius Brubeck at the Jazz Café

Darius Brubeck may now be 76 years old, but his music remains as lively, vibrant, and charismatic as ever. Performing live at the Jazz Cafe in Camden, the legendary pianist was joined by his quartet of 16 years featuring Dave O’Higgins on tenor saxophone, Matt Ridley on double bass, and Wesley Gibbens on drums.

This was a gig of two halves. The first featured straight-ahead covers from his father’s legendary 1959 album Time Out, whilst the second explored the infectious sounds of South African jazz. The balance between the personal and political was spot on – it was at once deeply respectful of his father’s musical legacy whilst also sharply aware of social injustices and racial liberation struggles during apartheid.

Just as on Time Out, the band opened the night with ‘Blue Rondo a la Turk’ and navigated the darting rhythms and shifting tempos with a classy precision. This was followed by more Brubeck classics, ‘Three to Get Ready’, ‘Strange Meadow Lark’, and ‘Cathy’s Waltz’. Like his father, Darius has a wonderful ability to combine the symmetrical elegance of Haydn and the lyrical phrasing of Chopin with the cool swinging rhythms of West Coast jazz, a sound that is well over 60 years old but remains as fresh and exciting as ever. ‘Take Five’ was saved as the final tune of the set, an eagerly anticipated crowd favourite which did not disappoint and featured top-notch solos from all bandmembers. O’Higgins was particularly impressive throughout, his tenor bringing a muscular modern edge to tunes that were originally recorded with Paul Desmond’s dark and dry alto tone.

In the second set, Darius moved beyond the repertoire of his father to explore the sounds of South African jazz, a style that has deep resonance within Darius’ own life. For 15 years Darius lived in South Africa, and in 1984 even founded the first university degree in jazz studies at the University of Natal. In 1988, he established the Jazzanians, the first multiracial student jazz ensemble to perform outside of South Africa and which in no small part echoed his father’s inclusion of black bassist Eugene Wright into his legendary quartet over 30 years previously. The quartet performed a handful of tunes from South African jazz legends, including Hugh Masekela’s ‘Nomali’ and Abdullah Ibrahim’s ‘Tsakwe / Royal Blue’ and ‘Mannenberg’. Gibbens came alive during this set, his flurries of sticks, brushes, and bare hands providing infectiously danceable shuffle beats and complex polyrhythms. A feeling of up-tempo exuberance was tangible throughout, and the chemistry on show was a joy to experience.

The quartet also performed a rendition of ‘The Rainbow’, the only original composition by Darius of the evening. Dedicated to the famous Durban jazz club situated on the fringes of black and white communities, The Rainbow was a space where multi-racial music, despite its illegality at the time, continued to thrive during the years of apartheid. The story of this era in Darius’ career is still not so widely known to audiences in the UK, an era which Darius hinted will be centre stage for upcoming releases in the new year.

For an encore, the quartet performed a heart-warming cover of ‘Winter Wonderland’. Rearranged around a 5/4 time signature, this not only ended the gig on a suitably Christmassy note but also tied in with the rhythmic experimentation from the first set.