Dave Brubeck's holiday album -- The jazz pianist brings Mexican and nostalgic influences to old standards

By Larry Blumenfeld
Updated December 13, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

With his white hair and jolly demeanor, jazz pianist Dave Brubeck could make a convincing Santa Claus. But at 76, Brubeck’s tall frame is too lean. Besides, Brubeck — who scored a timeless hit with Paul Desmond’s ”Take Five,” and whose catalog of recordings numbers over 100 — is an American legend all his own, with his own holiday message.

”Every year, someone else gets me to record on their Christmas record,” jokes Brubeck, sitting in the expansive living room of his Wilton, Conn., home, ”but I resisted doing my own for a long time. So this one needed to be special. I thought about using an orchestra, or a choir, but then I remembered my relatives and friends gathered around the parlor pianos of my childhood, and I wanted this to be a personal statement.”

His new release, A Dave Brubeck Christmas, is just that, with Brubeck alone at the piano. There are delicate renditions of Christmas standards, but central to the album is the Mexican folk tune ”Cantos para Pedir las Posadas.” ”It’s a traditional Mexican Christmas song, sung for 10 days house to house, on a pilgrimage like Joseph and Mary,” explains Brubeck.

Brubeck has made another contribution to this season’s holiday offerings with his composition ”God’s Love Made Visible,” part of the stage presentation Bending Toward the Light: A Jazz Nativity, a musical interpretation of the Christmas story featuring Studs Terkel (as narrator) and tap dancer Jimmy Slyde that is to be performed at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. (Brubeck himself will be in New York City just before the holidays, signing copies of his CDs at Tower Records at Lincoln Center.)

As with most people, Christmas is family time for the Brubecks. Of the six Brubeck offspring, four sons are professional musicians, all of whom regularly collaborate with their father. ”When we do concerts with the family,” says bassist Chris, ”it’s an emotional experience for some people. They think, ‘My God, I can’t even have a good conversation with my dad, let alone converse for two hours in a musical language.”’