Chris Brubeck, along with his brother and friends, upholds the family legacy

The Brubeck Brothers Quartet consists of Dan on drums, Chris on bass and trombone, Chuck Lamb on piano and Mike DeMicco on guitar.

In conversation, Chris Brubeck sometimes refers to his father as “Dave.” 

There’s a reason. Chris Brubeck is a working jazz musician who played “hundreds, maybe thousands” of concerts next to his father. And in rehearsal with other jazz icons, “it felt like I was a little kid to say ‘Dad!’ It was more professional to call him Dave.”

As well as the dozens of albums and hundreds of compositions, Dave Brubeck’s legacy lives on in his children, and their Brubeck Brothers Quartet, which will perform Dec. 2 in an SCP Jazz concert with Chris on bass and trombone, brother Dan on drums, Chuck Lamb on piano and Mike DeMicco on guitar. 

Lamb and DeMicco have played with the family for decades, well before Dave Brubeck’s death in 2012. “As Dave got older, they said, let’s do an album of his tunes and re-arrange them,” Chris said. “It was great fun to share that with him.” 

As a child, Chris Brubeck and his five siblings met and heard plenty of great musicians in their home. “As far as I knew, everyone played like that,” he said. “And I would go with my dad to his concerts and see how much joy he brought.” As he grew up, it felt natural to follow in the family business.

And it extended to his mother, too. Iola Brubeck was a talented lyricist in her own right, and the upcoming Chicago concert will feature guest vocalist Catherine Russell in songs with lyrics by Chris’ mother and music by his father. A further family connection is Dave Brubeck’s classic tune “Kathy’s Waltz,” named after his daughter, who died this past summer. In concert, an accompanying video montage of historic family photos “helps the audience understand the kind of person my dad was,” Chris said. “Even musicians who knew a lot about him say that really fills out the picture.” 

The regular quartet will also be joined by saxophonist Camille Thurman. Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” written in 5/4 time, was immortalized on the “Time Out” album with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond taking the melody line, but Chris said that his quartet usually performs “Take Five” without a saxophone — partly because that way, “it’s harder to perceive us as a ghost band.” 

Chris Brubeck will play bass for most of the concert, but he also performs regularly on trombone. He remembers that as a teenage student at Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, his group performed at Orchestra Hall, and he got to meet the Chicago Symphony’s legendary bass trombonist Ed Kleinhammer. “That was maybe one of the best brass sections in the world,” he said. “And he offered to play some duets with me. That was amazing.”

As an adult, he has worked in many genres, including composing both jazz and orchestral music. “I create as much new material in improvisation as I can,” he said. “My dad always said he was a composer who happens to play jazz. It’s instant composition.” But permanent, written composition is “a hell of a lot of work,” he said, “to hold that spark and then develop it” after the sound of an improvisation disappears into the concert hall.

Many celebrations of Dave Brubeck’s centenary in 2020 were wiped out by the pandemic, but then and now quartet still faces audiences who expect to hear the patriarch’s classic tunes. “We probably couldn’t stand doing the same thing every night, but jazz is different every night,” he said. “We always begin by playing the melody, and when you’ve done that, God knows where it’s going to go. My dad always said that the audience is the fifth member of the quartet.”

Every concert is a unique creation, partly because of the audience and partly because of factors as mundane as the equipment. “You’re at the mercy of how good is their piano or their amplifier, or for Dan, how good is their drum set?” Chris said. “And if the sound man is used to rap concerts, you have to explain that the bass drum doesn’t need to sound like a cannon.” 

Sometimes he wishes he had more time on the program to perform newer work, but “we don’t get tired of ’Take Five’ or ’Blue Rondo a la Turk,’ ” he said. “I’ve arranged it for full orchestra, for woodwind quintet. We play ’Take Five’ every night, and my brother plays these amazing drum solos. And hearing Catherine Russell sing my mom’s lyrics will be special. I’m always honored and pleased to be doing music.” 

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