In 1959, pianist and composer Dave Brubeck “made one of the coolest and best-selling jazz albums of all time,” writes Matt Schudel at The Washington Post. He did so at a time when dozens of other jazz musicians were releasing career-defining records that also changed jazz, almost overnight. Brubeck’s Time Out eventually became a “certified pop hit,” largely thanks to “the infectious quality of its classic instrumental hit, ‘Take Five.’”
It is indeed rare for a song to become both a jazz standard and an instrumental so popular that it’s covered by dozens of artists in dozens of popular genres over six decades, including some reverent ska and dub reggae tributes. “It has certainly shown up in some unjazzy settings over the years,” writes Ted Gioia in The Jazz Standard: A Guide to the Repertoire. The song has been “rapped over and sampled, played by marching bands and sung by choirs… I am sure I will hear it on a cell phone ringtone someday soon.”
The original tune, composed not by Brubeck but longtime saxophonist Paul Desmond, was adapted into more popular forms almost as soon as it came out. In 1961, Brubeck and his wife Iola penned lyrics for a version recorded by Carmen McRae. Al Jarreau adapted this version for a 1977 recording on his Grammy-winning album Look to the Rainbow, which “introduced a new generation of fans to this song. “
Over time “Take Five” may have “lost much of its capacity to surprise,” but “it can still delight.” That is no more so the case when we hear as it was originally played by the Dave Brubeck quartet itself, formed in 1951 by Brubeck and Desmond, who first met in Northern California in 1944. After cycling through several rhythm players throughout the early fifties, they found drummer Joe Morello in 1956, then two years later, bassist Eugene Wright, who first joined them for a U.S. State Department tour of Europe and Asia.
While traveling to ostensibly promote U.S. good will, Brubeck and his bandmates also picked up the Eurasian folk music that inspired “Take Five,” with its 5/4 time (which in turn inspired the name). No matter how many times you’ve heard Desmond’s Eastern-inspired melodies over Brubeck’s two-chord blues vamp and Morello’s relentless fills, you can always hear it afresh when the classic quartet plays the song live. Above, see them in one of their absolute greatest performances, a rollicking, dynamic attack in Belgium in 1964 that serves as all the argument one needs for “Take Five”’s greatness.