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Take 5 Alto Saxophone

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Take Five by the Dave Brubeck Quartet

Few would venture beyond ‘Take Five’, the throwaway track that secured the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s place in the jazz pantheon of greats if prompted to name a famous track with an unusual time signature. Well, maybe some would offer the B-side to ‘Take Five’ when it was first released as a single in autumn 1959, ‘Blue Rondo à la Turk’ (in 9/8), but it’s Brubeck all the way.

Dave Brubeck was a pianist and composer from California and was particularly seen as an exponent of west coast cool jazz. His synonymous quartet, formed in 1951, would feature many line-ups; the most famous and successful ran from 1958 to 1967, when he collaborated with saxophonist Paul Desmond, with Eugene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums.

Brubeck and Desmond, another Californian, had played together before when Desmond was working as a backing musician in San Francisco, but they had fallen out. It took Brubeck’s wife to bring them back together when Desmond offered his services as an arranger, and babysitter for the Brubeck’s young children! Brubeck and Desmond drew up a contract which lasted for the duration of the quartet when Brubeck dissolved it to concentrate more on composition.

‘Take Five’ began as a request from drummer Morello for a piece with a 5/4 time signature. Desmond ran with his drum riff to compose the famous melody for alto sax, and Brubeck arranged the rest.

Written in E♭ minor, it begins simply with the drums followed by the piano’s two-chord vamp which provides the backing throughout. Then in comes the main melody on alto sax for two repetitions, followed by a bridge section and main melody again before the sax and drum solos, returning for a full reprise. Originally, the inclusion of Desmond’s bridge section wasn’t certain, but Desmond thought it made the melody complete and it stayed.

Desmond had originally thought the track a ‘throwaway’ – little did he know! Although not achieving initial success on its first release, it became a sleeper hit in 1961 due to some heavy airplay on a NYC radio station. When Brubeck died in 2012, it rode high in the European charts again and became the biggest-selling jazz single of all time, the first to sell over one million copies and being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. When he died in 1977, Desmond left all the performance royalties for his compositions to the American Red Cross, with ‘Take Five’ helping to raise over $100k p.a.

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