Brubeck’s Unsquare Dance

Or, How To Make Me A Happy Man

I love music. I mean, who doesn’t, right? It sets you on a path and then takes you all the way, if you let it. With its fingers it moulds your face, and stretches your mouth into a smile as wide as the English Channel, if you let it. It beats in place of your heart.

There’s one piece that has that magic to it every single time. Dave Brubeck’s Unsquare Dance. This … now this is a magician at play, an artist free with his soul in all its flippant joy. I dare you not to smile, not to want to tap your feet, as you listen to this one.

The above recording is a later version, a celebration of Brubeck’s magic, honoured by being scored for and performed in conjunction with the London Symphony Orchestra. The original, recorded solely by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, is a masterpiece of jazz time signature magic that I think became a hallmark of Brubeck’s style. It’s standard fare for jazz aficionados (of which I am not). I’m one of them that inherited Brubeck from his father and later grew in my own appreciation of his masterful play. For me, this is the essence of jazz.

It sets a lighter note to my day. I can’t help but smile as it plays. And the foot tapping, well, it’s deceptively simple, really. The first time you listen, you want to tap it out, to catch the beat and follow it. But then you realise something’s a little out. It’s just not quite square. One could say you’re only able to follow 7/4 of the piece …

In some regards, I think Brubeck is a bit of a Mozart for jazz. He let loose with the things held dear and pushed boundaries and had a truckload of fun in the process. But then, isn’t that all of jazz?

Speaking of fun, when you get to the end of the piece, it plays out two well known themes. The first is a well known musical phrase from the American folk tune, Turkey in the Straw. The second phrase is at the very end of the piece. It’s the old shave and a haircut … two bits.

Both of these phrases were made famous by various cartoons, and particularly the Looney Tunes ones by Warner Bros. Listening to Brubeck’s Unsquare Dance, I can almost hear him giggling with delight at the surprise of the last two phrases — one that is entirely square (irony, anyone?) and one that is thoroughly embedded in a world of crazy delight. It says to me that someone can be serious about something (have you ever tried to write a piece in the 7/4 time signature?) and at the same time have an immense amount of fun.

Life needs laughter!

The deeper connection for me is the use of these last two themes in cartoons. I don’t think anyone can quite get close to the frivolity and joy that Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoons use to bring to me as a kid — and still do today. Like Brubeck’s wordplay with the very square Turkey in the Straw at the end of his very Unsquare Dance, I think the wordplay with their very title, Looney Tunes, is manifest clearly in the famous Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd cartoon, Rabbit of Seville.

I invite you to have a watch of these key moments played out live by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

What makes this version so brilliant is the laughter. It’s a crowd full of humans having some every human moments at the expense of a human … all through the clever visual manipulation of music. And I bet if you’re anything like me and you watched this in the privacy of your home, you allowed yourself to smile … or even to laugh out loud!

Play is so fundamental to what we do! Brubeck plays with his music and gives me a smile from the inside out. The Looney Tunes cartoons play, propelled by great music, and it makes me smile from the inside out.

And when I allow myself to play — to abandon myself regardless of what you or anyone else thinks, I discover a beautiful truth: I, too, can allow myself to smile from the inside out. And it is so very good.

… to smile … it is so very good

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