In the summer of 1957, Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond decided to record an album of well-known tunes from Walt Disney's animated films. Though Dave Digs Disney was first issued digitally in 1994, the album for years mysteriously remained on the back burner whenever Columbia producers reached into the vaults to remaster Dave's albums using the latest technology. Now Sony/Legacy has finally reissued the storied Disney album, and it sounds splendid. Best of all, the lemon meringue release includes both mono and stereo versions as well as alternate takes.
Yesterday, I spoke to George Avakian, the album's original producer, about the recording. More with George in a moment.
Dave Digs Disney has been a personal favorite of mine for years. I've long loved its sophisticated bedtime story quality and whimsy. Listening to it always sounds like a visit to a childhood neighborhood as an adult. Having spent hours with Dave on the phone and at his Connecticut home last December, I can tell you that this album is dear to his heart and one of the closest representations of who he is as a sunny, optimistic artist.
According to Sony, Dave Digs Disney is the second most important album in Dave's catalogue after Time Out. The album was recorded over three different dates between June and August 1957—in New York, Los Angeles and again in New York. The original LP was issued only in mono, though stereo tapes were recorded at the time. Typically, mono versions were followed by a stereo release six months later. But back in 1957, at the dawn of the stereo era, there wasn't enough of a market. People simply didn't have the gear in large enough numbers, and Columbia decided to hold off.
So why did Dave bother recording an album of Disney songs anyway? According to George's original liner notes, Dave had called him from Disneyland in California after taking his five children on the rides. Excited by the experience, Dave thought an album of Disney movie songs would be a great idea.
The truth is Dave and alto saxophonist Paul Desmond had been playing a batch of Disney songs since the very early 1950s. Dave loved their lyrical, playful quality, probably from his first-hand experience of taking his kids to the movies before Disneyland opened. After all, The Duke was written in 1954 after dropping off one of his sons at school.
Today, a jazz version of a Disney song is hardly a surprise. But back in the '50s, no one in jazz took Disney movies or their soundtracks seriously. Disney represented Squaresville, a largely white Utopian world in which bad moods, misfortune and unconventional lifestyles simply didn't exist. Even the term "Mickey Mouse" was musicians' code for rinky-dink, not the real deal, and lightweight.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet was the first modern jazz group to treat Disney songs seriously. This, of course, excludes the swing-era big bands that recorded quirky, "Mickey Mouse" adaptations. For instance, Dave's group first recorded Alice in Wonderland and Give a Little Whistle in 1952 for Fantasy. In each case, the rendition was a robust, adventurous interpretation rather than a sticky embrace. Bill Evans and Miles Davis followed, and soon even John Coltrane was getting into the act with My Favorite Things and Chim Chim Cher-ee.
Here's what George Avakian told me yesterday:
"The Disney theme was Dave's idea, and I was amazed when he called and told me what he wanted to do. I think I said, 'Jesus, what a goofy idea.' But anything Dave wanted short of tearing down the building was fine with me. He was taken with the tunes, and the quintet had been playing them on the road quite a bit. As you know, Dave and Paul had a quirky sense of humor.
"I was little more than a traffic cop on those sessions. It was one of the easiest dates I ever produced. When the record came out, there were a few who said, 'What is Dave doing recording Disney?' The inference was that the album's theme was somehow trite or child-like, and not nearly as serious as Dave’s earlier efforts. None of which was the case then—or now. Dave was ahead of his time tapping into the Disney songbook. Look at how many artists have done the same since."
The new reissue taps into your inner child, is relentlessly upbeat and offers some terrific improvising by Dave and Desmond.