Dave Brubeck: Playing with Pedal versus No Pedal

Fans of the Dave Brubeck Quartet all love the “Brubeck sound”. By the term “Brubeck sound” I am referring not just to Brubeck’s highly original harmonies and melodies, but also to that crisp, dry, jazz-piano sound that comes from his playing the piano within the texture of his quartet with NO PEDAL!

The sparkling dry points of sound that come from unpedaled piano playing complement the flowing sound of the saxophone or flute most wonderfully, and are a treat for the ear. In concert one actually sees Dave Brubeck tapping his pedal foot on the floor without his even coming close to the damper pedal. Oddly, though, when Brubeck plays solo, he automatically employs the pedal—without exception. One longs to hear that crisp, dry, unpedaled Dave-Brubeck piano sound, but in vain.

The other day I heard an entire CD of Dave Brubeck in solo recital in which he pedaled throughout—and by the end of the disc I think I had discovered why. After a succession of solo pieces played with pedal, Brubeck suddenly played seven or eight seconds of music without the pedal at all—AND IT DIDN’T WORK! It didn’t work, I believe—if one puts aside the occasional stragically placed rests or staccato passages that do work—BECAUSE THE EAR CRAVES CONTINUOUS SOUND! When this craving is satisfied by the continuous flowing line of a wind, string, or voice accompaniment, the dry points of unpedaled piano sound enrich the listening experience. Take away this continuously sounding accompaniment, however, and the unpedaled piano playing all by itself, acoustically, is a rattling of dry bones. (Think, for example, how little music there is written for solo xylophone!).

Franz Listz called the damper or sustaining pedal “the soul of the piano.” This is not an exaggeration. Pianist Artur Schnabel was unambiguous in his admonition to use this pedal: “Pedalization. . .is part of the instrument. It belongs to piano playing. The piano is played with hands and feet. One changes the amount of pedal ad libitum, according to the room, to one’s mood, to the occasion—but one always, automatically, employs the pedal.” This being the case, one might ask how it is that music for harpsichord works so well, since it is an instrument that wasn’t even built with a sustaining pedal. One answer, I believe, is that almost all (successful) solo harpsichord music was composed in the Baroque-era contrapuntal style, in which there is continuous sound through the dynamic of continuous movement in one or more of the four voices—soprano, alto, tenor, and bass—all of the time! By contrast, in the later homophonic classical, romantic, and modern keyboard styles that were written only for piano and never for harpsichord, this continous movement does not exist. Hence the OBLIGATION, in these latter instances, to use the pedal!