When the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Time Out” was released 50 years ago, jazz was well on its way to becoming the niche market it is today.
Record labels were dealing with that state of affairs in textbook fashion — by tightening the reins on artists and taking the most conservative routes possible.
The album, one of 29 recently inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, went on to become the bestselling release of 1959 regardless of genre and the most successful release in jazz history.
But it nearly didn’t see the light of day.
“Initially, Columbia wasn’t very happy with the album,” Brubeck recalls with a laugh. “In fact, they hated it and didn’t want to put it out because it was breaking too many rules. It was an album of all original songs and, worse still, they were songs you couldn’t dance to. They even hated the painting on the cover.”
The pianist did have one highly placed ally at the label — president Goddard Lieberson, whose own background as a composer helped make him sympathetic to Brubeck’s aspirations. “Goddard told me I was on the right track,” says Brubeck. “I remember him saying, ‘I am so tired of “Stardust” and “Body and Soul,” and this is something fresh.’ ”
Practically everything about “Time Out” was fresh — from Joe Morello’s peripatetic, time-shifting drum patterns to Paul Desmond’s smokily lilting sax runs.
The disc evinces a number of offbeat influences, from the compositions of avant-garde classicist Darius Milhaud (whom Brubeck studied with as a young man) to the modal patterns of the Middle East and India, where the group had toured extensively. In those regions, it was perfectly reasonable to think of dance music being in 7/4 time or, as in the case of the Mozart-via-Istanbul “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” even 9/8 time.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its unconventional nature, “Time Out” quickly became a sensation. It sold more than a million copies within a year of its release (an almost unheard-of number in the early singles era) and spawned a pop-chart topper in the form of the bluesy-but-asymmetrical “Take Five.”
More significantly, the album continues to sell around 500 copies per week a half-century on.
“Time Out” being a hit “was the furthest thing from my mind,” Brubeck says. “So when someone called me on tour in Europe and said, ‘Did you know you have a No. 1 record?’ I was stunned. I knew we were on to something with the experimenting, but it’s surprising and wonderful to see how people still respond.”