Jazz and visual art: Dave Brubeck and Joan Miró

The intersection of jazz and visual art is a fascinating exploration of creativity and expression. Dave Brubeck, a renowned jazz musician of the 1950s and 1960s, beautifully melds these two forms of art in his album “Time Further Out: Miró Reflections,” which features a Joan Miró painting on its cover. (The painting is titled “Calculation”, 1925)

Brubeck describes the album as a “jazz interpretation” of Miró’s artwork, a concept that piques curiosity about the connection between the auditory and the visual.

How does Brubeck translate Miró’s visual art into jazz music?

What specific elements in the painting are used?

The liner notes talk about each song on the album. Only a few seem to directly relate to the painting. Let’s look at the specific sections of the liner notes that touch directly to the painting.

A closer examination of the liner notes reveals Brubeck’s method of interpretation:

Here’s a closer look at the first section

The text from the first section

TIME FURTHER OUT: Miró Reflections is a jazz interpretation of the Joan Miró PAINTING: 1925, which appears on the cover of this album.* Conceived as a blues suite, each reflection is in the form of 12 bar blues or a variation thereof.

To explain the relationship of the Miró painting to the music is not a simple task. I can point out the obvious link between the numbers in the upper right hand corner of the painting and the time signatures in each of the pieces in the album. There is a more tenous link in the Mior abstract forms, suggestion human figures moving in a visual rhythm which could be interpreted as a jazz quartet. However, beyond these objective relationships of symbols and figures, I feel that in Miró́’s painting he has expressed in visual terms my approach to music—that is, a search for something new within old forms, an unexpected perspective, a surprising order and inner balance that values the spontaneity of composition.

For those who like to ponder on such topics, many a long winter evening can be devoted to discussing the relationship between painting and music. Suffice it to say, that it was just such reflections, on the specific relationships of Miró, painting and jazz, which brought about the music of this album. (if this should start a trend in “music to look at album covers by,” remember you saw it here, first.)

Brubeck connects the painting to the music through several means.

  1. The literal numbers in the corner of the painting
    The numbers in the painting’s upper right corner correlate to the time signatures of the pieces on the album.
  2. The abstract forms look like musicians in a quartet
    He suggests that Miró’s abstract forms, resembling human figures, could represent a jazz quartet, offering a visual rhythm that complements the music.
  3. Overall philosophy
    Brubeck sees in Miró’s painting a reflection of his own musical philosophy: a quest for innovation within traditional forms, marked by spontaneity and a balance of the unexpected.

Let’s take a look at each of these means

1. The literal numbers in the corner of the painting

Brubeck riffs off the numbers scribbled on the painting. Take a look at the titles of the songs.

The album’s tracks, each with a tempo that mirrors numbers found in Miró’s painting, exemplify this connection.

How do these numbers in the painting relate to the music? Here’s more from the liner notes.

“Maori Blues” is influenced by the number 6 from the painting, reminding Brubeck of a 6/4 rhythm heard in New Zealand. Similarly, “Bru’s Boogie Woogie” connects to the figure 8, reflecting an “eight to the bar” rhythm.

Maori Blues (6/4) The number 6 on the Miró painting reminded me of an effective 6/4 rhythm I had heard sung at a welcoming ceremony given us by the Maoris in Wellington, New Zealand, when the Quartet played there in 1959.

Bru’s Boogie Woogie (8/8) The figure 8 in the painting could only suggest “eight to the bar” to an old musician who served as an apprenticeship with Cleo Brown.

Mindful of the capricious spirit of the Miró painting, there is a suggestion of whimsy in these reflections and a conscious attempt to distill rather than magnify rhythmic complexity.

2. The abstract forms look like musicians in a quartet

That takes some creative thinking to see four musicians here. I see four blobs. One blob looks a bit figural, maybe holding a painting palette… or the bagpipes?

3. Overall philosophy

Innovation within Traditional Forms

In the context of Brubeck’s music, “innovation within traditional forms” refers to his approach of taking the foundational structures of jazz—such as its characteristic rhythms, chord progressions, and blues elements—and infusing them with new life through unconventional time signatures, polyrhythms, and tonalities. This is akin to Miró’s approach to art, where he used the traditional canvas to explore the depths of abstract expressionism and surrealism. Both artists share a common ground in respecting the formative elements of their respective fields while daring to alter the landscape with their unique visions.

Spontaneity

Spontaneity in jazz is often associated with improvisation, a core element of the genre where musicians spontaneously create music within the framework of a tune. Brubeck’s music, particularly in the context of the “Time Further Out” album, is replete with moments of improvisation that capture the spirit of spontaneity, mirroring the unpredictable and often whimsical nature of Miró’s abstract forms. This spontaneity is a nod to the creative process itself, unpredictable and unbound, allowing for the expression of the moment’s pure essence.

Balance of the Unexpected

The “balance of the unexpected” refers to the harmonious integration of unexpected elements into a coherent whole. In Brubeck’s music, this might manifest as an unusual time signature that still feels natural within the context of the piece, or a sudden shift in rhythm that surprises the listener yet seamlessly fits within the composition’s overall structure. Similarly, Miró’s painting balances abstract forms, colors, and figures in a way that, despite their unexpected nature, creates a sense of order and inner balance. This balance is not just a juxtaposition of the predictable with the surprising but a deeply thought-out composition that challenges and expands the audience’s perception.

A bit more about the painting itself

“Calculation” is title of this Joan Miró painting. I cannot find who has this painting now. In fact, there are surprisingly little results when doing a Google search for: “Joan Miró” “Calculation”.

“Paint “Calculation” was painted in 1925. This was near the start of Miro’s career. His first solo exhibition was in 1918. In 1924, Miró joined the Surrealist group. Thus, his would be a very early surrealist Miro work.

Brubeck’s album was released in 1961, a long time after the painting was initially made. Thus, Brubeck was digging back into Miró’s early works for this album. The art world was completely different 36 years after this painting was done. Miró would continue working until his death in 1979.

My thoughts

Honestly, I like Brubeck’s album a lot more than Miró’s painting. Brubeck really does transform tradition. I’m not so sure that Miró transforms tradition, as he just makes stream-of-conscience doodles.

This blog post is the beginning of an exploration into the synergy between Dave Brubeck’s jazz and the realm of visual arts. I plan on doing a deeper dive into this subject. Including insights from the book, “Looking and Listening: Conversations between Modern Art and Music” by Brenda Lynne Leach.

The cost of the book is a bit prohibitive for me ($41+). But it is available via interlibrary loan. Someday, I’ll request this book, and share more of what I learn.

My personal journey through music and visual arts started in college. Back then I created artwork exploring the theme of music in the arts. A lot of the work was based on rhythm and energy. I wanted to take the power from music and inject it into my art. I really enjoyed making that work in college. I’d love to dig it up and share it online. And perhaps make some more.

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