On June 23rd, 2007 I took in the final night (for me) of a self-imposed truncated Ottawa Jazz Festival, only three nights deep into the week-plus long fest. Ah well, short as it was I saw some great music, especially the main act on this fine summer’s evening, Dave Brubeck.
And man, was it great! Back then Dave Brubeck was almost ninety years old so I wasn’t expecting much more than an appearance really, but even at that stage of the game the now-late pianist was still right on time, as it were. It was a beautiful night out and the amazing weather was perfectly augmented by the high-quality on-kilter compound jazz emanating from the elder greatsman and (I believe) a few of his children up there on the stage.
Of course Dave Brubeck became a household name thanks to his nearly impossible hit single Take Five (let’s just agree that it’s ironic that the song Take Five was actually written by his sax player, a man by the very non-household name of Paul Desmond*. But bandleaders will be bandleaders I suppose) from his entirely unlikely and wholly brilliant 1959 album Time Out. So famous in fact that here he was still basically touring that very album almost a half-century later.
Let’s just see if Axl Rose will be still touring Chinese Democracy in the 2060’s.
Anyway, I mentioned that Brubeck’s (via Desmond) hit Take Five was impossible and clearly I’m overstating things – huge as it was – but I tell you, on paper this could never be a hit. First off, it’s instrumental, and there are a dearth of instrumental hit singles in the Western world, though I’ll admit we could all name a few (Popcorn and Music Box Dancer unfortunately jump to mind). Secondly, like every other song on Time Out (which is arguably a concept album due to this next bit…), the song is written in compound time, meaning it’s not in one of the two standard meters, being 3 or 4, not in that order. Which is to say, almost all the music you hear in the world is in 4/4 time or (less often lately) in 3/4 time (or their equivalents). Compound time runs a bunch of twos (half of four) and threes together to create time signatures like 9/8, 11/8, or 5/8 (like Take Five, which I suspect is why the song is called that). You’ll recognize these time signatures by not recognizing them – rare that they are – and by the awkward dancing that accompanies them.
(Which, by the way, is the crux of the traditional leaning on 3/4 and 4/4. You can dance to those meters and still look cool. I can’t, but you probably can.)
Just like the instrumental thing, I can point to a few hit songs that are in odd time signatures like Money by Pink Floyd, Solsbury Hill by Peter Gabriel, and, oh I don’t know, Take Five by Dave Brubeck (err…Paul Desmond), but there aren’t that many, I assure you.
Now, put the instrumental tune on top of an odd time signature and release it on an album full of likewise songs, all recorded by a mostly unknown artist and, well, you’ll start to see why the success of Take Five was so unlikely. The only real saving grace is how great of a song it is, due to how cleverly crafted the melody is.
We musicians often put a lot of emphasis on counting bars** and I’ve spent a considerable amount of time figuring out signatures***, so here’s your little music lesson for the day:
To write a successful melody in an odd time signature you have to set up the melody to end not at the end of a phrase, but rather at the beginning of the next phrase. It’s this anticipation that fools the brain into thinking the motif is evened out and calms down your foot-tapping confusion. For example, if I write a story like this:
When the cold hand reached out and gutted my
Confidence I turned back to find the most horrible
Sight, a man and his mule where trying to
Climb up a razor thin mountain of salted
You’ll notice two things: a) I am a terrible poet, and b) your eyes jump quickly to the start of the next line, where the questions being posed are answered. The melody of Take Five (and Money and Solsbury Hill) work like that too.
You know, when I started writing this ticket story I had it in mind that I would write a poem to illustrate my theory on the success of melodies written in compound time but I had much higher hopes for how it would turn out (hopefully it gets fixed in post-production). I suppose Paul Desmond (who died of lung cancer in the ’70’s…who ever heard of a chain smoking sax player?) could relate.
And whilst my poem doesn’t scan well (like I know anything about good scanning…) it behooves me to add that I went to the late night jam hosted by John Geggie, and the entirety of the Dizzy Gillespie tribute band showed up. I can’t for the life of me figure out if that was after Brubeck’s set or a different night entirely but I was behooved to add it so I acted accordingly.
*Brubeck and Desmond recorded together for twenty-six years. Time Out was the 29th record they recorded together. They would go on to record another thirty-three more. Jazz dudes worked hard back then.
**That’s a musician joke.
***So is that.