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Joe Morello, 1928-2011

Posted by Mark Feeney  March 13, 2011 10:17 PM

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morello.jpgJoe Morello, who died Saturday at his Irvington, N.J., home, at 82, had far from the most recognizable name among jazz drummers. He did, though, surely have the most recognizable 2 1/2 minutes: that simultaneously expansive and concise solo on Dave Brubeck's "Take Five." You don't have to be a Brubeck fan to appreciate its monumental quality. The piano-and-bass figure beneath it by Brubeck and Eugene Wright is like a sonic plinth. Morello's solo seems monumental both because of the Vitruvian sturdiness of his sound and how the solo represents a kind of pinnacle in jazz crossover. The single of "Take Five" sold more than a million copies. What you hear listening to that solo is, in a way, the highwater mark of modern jazz popularity. Swing was far more commercial, of course, but swing was fundamentally about dancing. Modern jazz was about listening. For better or worse, no one ever danced to Joe Morello's drumming on a Brubeck record.

What people remember most from "Take Five" is the insistence of Brubeck's piano and the gorgeous, airy detachment of Paul Desmond's alto (Desmond  has the composing credit). This means people tend to forget that it's Morello, unaccompanied, who starts off the number and sets the tone with his swirling yet locked-in intro. Just under two minutes later comes the solo. It's spacious, unhurried, slyly deadpan, utterly without self-indulgence (being so understated), yet also relentless -- inexorable, even. Inexorable but not inevitable, since inevitability would leave out the imaginativeness of Morello's conception. What he gives us is the sound of a man going around in circles in a straight line -- and vice versa -- a kind of diagonal elegance, a blissed-out geometry cut on the bias. It's ballast to Desmond's sail, root to his blossom.

Sometimes the most telling praise in art takes the from of admiration from a fellow artist at the furthest remove from the praised party's own practice. When Frank Sinatra recognized Igor Stravinsky eating at the same restaurant he interrupted his lunch to go ask for his autograph. Vladimir Horowitz is said to have remarked that if Art Tatum had ever taken up classical music he, Horowitz, would have given up the piano the next day. Asked to name the greatest living German poet, Thomas Mann muttered, "Brecht, unfortunately." And none other than Keith Moon, the craziest, wildest, and yes, most virtuosic percussionist in rock history, said when asked by Rolling Stone in 1972 to name his favorite drummers, "Technically, Joe Morello is perfect."

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