While many jazz purists might balk at the album’s status as a classic (it’s not uncommon for the album to be attacked as “novelty” jazz), its combination of popular jazz forms and uncommon time signatures proved crucial to its widespread success and uniqueness in the popular but crowded cool jazz scene of its day. Of course, “Take Five” is the most recognizable tune here, with its uncommon 5/4 time and recognizable piano vamp. Similarly popular is “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” which starts in 9/8 time around a Turkish rhythm that inspired Brubeck in his role as the song’s composer. The song’s almost Third Stream classical-oriented bombast contrasts dramatically with the tension-releasing 4/4 swinging solo breaks.
While the album is most known for its strange time signatures, I think what makes it an enduringly appealing listen is the melodicism apparent in Brubeck’s (and Desmond’s, in the case of “Take Five”) compositions. He takes a simple compositional building block—the decision to create a jazz song in 3/4 time—and combines it with a single-key theme of childlike ingeniousness to make an instantly memorable tune like “Three To Get Ready.” Similarly, “Strange Meadow Lark” combines an almost showtune-like piano solo with no obvious time signature into a straight-ahead 4/4 cool jazz tune that transfers the piano’s melodic ideas from earlier into a clear, clean alto line from Desmond. Brubeck’s piano returns over the rhythm section’s shuffle to repeat his song-opening ideas in a more confined environment.
Probably the element that most explains Time Out’s enduring popularity is its accessibility—after all, this is “white” jazz (with the exception of bassist Eugene Wright) in 1959, so you can’t expect anything too edgy. Desmond’s alto saxophone probably possesses the most character and voice out of any of the instruments present, dancing around the upper register with clarity in tone but just a bit of huskiness. Likewise, Brubeck’s piano proves amply able to state the major themes of the tunes but refrains from any major pyrotechnics when it comes to soloing. The rhythm section provides a pretty standard swing for most of the songs and seems able to handle the tricky time signature shifts (Joe Morello even manages a several-minutes-long drum solo in “Take Five”). When it comes to striking the essence of cool jazz, though, the quartet lies somewhere between true “cool” and suburban affability—the group arrangements are often bouncy where, say Miles Davis, might resort to understatement, a more liberal use of low volume dynamics and a soloing style that sounds as if the player isn’t sure whether or not he actually cares—now that’s “cool.”
As it stands, Time Out may not be the most genre-advancing jazz album, or even a sterling example of the movement in jazz history to which it belongs—huge-selling albums rarely are. It is, however, enduringly accessible.