Take one: lost Dave Brubeck tapes reveal jazz hit originally sounded like ‘a bad student band’

<span>Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

It is the best-selling jazz single of all time. But previously unheard rehearsal tapes reveal that Dave Brubeck’s Take Five might never have been such a hit if he had stuck with an original version.

Philip Clark, author of a forthcoming book on Brubeck, the American jazz legend, has for the first time gained access to 1959 recordings that had lain forgotten in a Californian archive until now.

He was taken aback to hear a completely different rhythmic groove and Brubeck’s quartet struggling to make sense of it. “It sounds like a bad student jazz band,” he said. “Most notably, the fundamental rhythm is wrong. Nothing will knit together.” Take Five was the first jazz single to hit a million sales and such is its enduring popularity that a YouTube video of a 1966 performance has had more than 10 million views. But Clark believes that had the band kept with the earlier version, “Take Five would probably have disappeared”.

“It’s a completely different rhythmic feel,” he said. “They all really struggle with it and it never really works. [Joe] Morello, who was a miraculous drummer, can hardly play it. He keeps tripping over it and he can’t quite get it to fit into the groove.

“[Paul] Desmond is fiddling with the melody line, so there are bits where it’s in a minor key and suddenly goes into the major, and the transitions aren’t quite worked out. [Eugene] Wright is trying to work out his bass part, and Dave is desperately trying to glue the whole thing together. They try 12 times. Then Dave says let’s do another tune.

“After that all the rehearsal tapes are lost, so we don’t actually know what happened between the rehearsal and the rhythm we now know.”

Months after the tapes were recorded, Take Five was released in an altogether different form.

While the earlier version had been “much more driving and faster” with a lopsided Latin rhythm, this had a sexy 5/4 Take Five beat which “sits in the groove”, said Clark.

“Oom, chuck-a, chuck, boom, boom/Oom, chuck-a, chuck, boom, boom. No other instrumental jazz single has beaten its record. Time Out, the album on which Take Five appeared originally, went platinum in 2011, meaning sales of 2 million copies plus.” he added.

American jazz musician Dave Brubeck performs on the pilot episode of television show, Dial M for Music,&#x002019; July  1965.
American jazz musician Dave Brubeck performs on the pilot episode of television show, Dial M for Music,’ July 1965. Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Brubeck, who died in 2012, was a pianist and composer who pushed jazz boundaries, experimenting with odd time signatures, improvised counterpoint, polyrhythm and polytonality.

But it is Desmond who is credited as Take Five’s composer. The quartet playing it was made up of Brubeck on the piano, Desmond on alto saxophone, Morello on drums and Wright on double bass.

Clark understands that the Brubeck estate might at some future date release the newly unearthed tapes – which cover around three hours of Time Out rehearsals.

In a further twist, the Take Five recordings contradicted what Brubeck had told him in extensive interviews in 2003, Clark revealed.

“Ninety per cent of what he told me about Take Five was completely undermined by the rehearsal tapes,” he said. “He insisted that the famous Take Five rhythms were in place at the beginning. Then I listened to the rehearsal tapes and the rhythm they were working with originally was unrecognisable.”

But he added that Brubeck had perhaps been misremembering a session that happened decades earlier.

Clark’s book, Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time, is published on 18 February.