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Remarkable as it may seem, it was from Trilok Gurtu, the legendary fusion musician and percussionist, that I first heard about the song “Take Five”. It was the late 90s when as a college student I had gone to Planet M at Powai, to attend a lecture cum demonstration by Trilok Gurtu on percussion. After enthralling the audience with a few snippets in the standard 4/4 rhythm and then admonishing us for our inability to keep time with him when he improvised in a 7 beat rhythm, Gurtu asked the audience what they would like to hear next. Someone shouted out an indistinct song name. Gurtu caught it, and demanded immediately, “Take Five? Kaun bolaa bey? (Which wise guy said that?)” Since no one seemed to come forward, Gurtu waited and then said, “Isn’t your life difficult enough? Why do you want 5/4? Just take four.” Needless to say, it was tough to keep time with him even as he played in 4/4. But all that time I also had an additional distraction in the form of a burning curiosity to know what “Take Five” was.
Back at my college campus, I learned that “Take Five” was a song from the album Time Out by Dave Brubeck and his quartet. And I listened to it. Yes, technically, it is in a five beat cycle, but it is delightful and so accessible. No wonder it became the first jazz single to sell over a million copies. In fact, it is quite likely that you know the song, even if you have never sought to listen to jazz on your own. In any case, whether you have heard it before or not, whether you are a jazz fan or not, please do me a favour. Lend your ear to these songs. You may find something you like.
Rather than recount the story of Take Five, I would like to share some interesting alternative takes of the song. Being such a popular song, Take Five has been covered several times, with over 40 recorded cover versions, according to Wikipedia. Over a period of time, I have run into several fascinating covers of Take Five. The original melody endures all transformations and interpretations, and yet the covers stand as bona fide works of music too. So here are my favourite five takes on Take Five.
Carmen McRae on vocals
I first heard Carmen McRae in an album called Carmen sings Monk where she lends lyrics and her ironic voice to the signature, unorthodox compositions of the jazz pianist, Thelonious Monk. Monk’s songs are mostly instrumental and have their own unique appeal, but McRae sings them so well, it is hard not to remember her lyrics and voice when you go back and hear Monk afterwards. Carmen sings Monk was recorded in 1988 when McRae was 66, but here is a younger McRae, delivering the same treatment to Take Five with the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1961!
George Benson on guitar
I got into George Benson via Wes Montgomery. On an NPR podcast, I heard Benson go gaga over Montgomery’s uncanny knack of interpreting any melody as his own, “if he decided to play it, you were gonna hear something unbeatable.” Being a big fan of Montgomery, I checked out Benson and ran into this little gem from the album Bad Benson released in 1974. Benson makes Take Five his own! As drummer Steve Gadd and bassist Ron Carter hold down an unshakeable groove, funky Benson just flies on guitar! Also listen to the amazing rhythm guitar of Phil Upchurch and the keyboard solo by Kenny Barron.
Al Jarreau on scat
Honestly, I had not heard this version until I sat down to make this compilation! But once I heard the late acrobat of scat, jazz singer Al Jarreau belt out this take on Take Five, recorded in 1976, there was really no way it wasn’t going to make the list. Scat singing, like beat boxing, is a musical art form where performers uses their voice to produce sounds or meaningless syllables to make music, instead of singing lyrics. It has a certain raw and visceral kind of appeal and it requires an incredible amount of energy and belief to pull off a convincing performance. Well, Jarreau absolutely kills it!
Sachal Studios Orchestra
The idea of an orchestra interpreting a jazz standard is not new. But what happens when the orchestra in question is not a symphony orchestra from America or Europe, but one based in Pakistan, complete with a tabla and a sitar? What happens is a mind-blowing rendition like no other! Set in a Lahore street lined with tea stalls and car repair garages, Sachal Studios and its orchestra operate thanks to the patronage of millionaire Izzat Majeed. Majeed remembers hearing Brubeck perform Take Five, live at Lahore in the 60s, when he was 8 years old. Majeed asked the orchestra to interpret Take Five, and what he got was a massive viral hit. Sachal Studios Orchestra has since hooked up with big names like Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and jammed with NYU jazz students. Here they are with Take Five recorded in 2011.
Sungha Jung on solo guitar
It was in Suwon, South Korea that I first heard Sungha Jung. I was over on a business trip, and we had this shuttle van driver who would come to work in a stick shift coupé. He would get his tablet into the van, filled with a really eclectic set of music videos. One morning, as I got in the shuttle, he was playing Diana Krall singing “The Look of Love”. Another time, he played Jung’s cover of Bom Bom Bom by Roy Kim. His enthusiastic endorsement of Jung’s talent wasn’t misplaced in the least, as Jung renders with equal comfort, songs as diverse as Gangnam Style or Autumn Leaves. Here he is with his solo guitar take on Take Five, recorded in 2016.
So which one do you like the most? The original or one of the other takes — McRae’s ironic vocals, Benson’s funky guitar, Jarreau’s energetic scatting, Sachal Studios’ orchestral rendition tinged in Indian classical music or Jung’s clean and crisp unplugged version?
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- Take Five, Time Out, The Dave Brubeck Quartet, 1959. Band members: Dave Brubeck – piano, Paul Desmond – alto saxophone, Eugene Wright – bass and Joe Morello – drums.
- Take Five, Carmen McRae Sings Lover Man and Other Billie Holiday Classics, Carmen McRae and the Dave Brubeck Quartet, 1961. Band members: Carmen McRae - vocals, Dave Brubeck – piano, Paul Desmond – alto saxophone, Eugene Wright – bass and Joe Morello – drums.
- Take Five, Bad Benson, George Benson, 1974. Band members: George Benson - guitar, Phil Upchurch - guitar, Kenny Barron - piano, Ron Carter - bass and Steve Gadd - drums.
- Take Five, Al Jarreau, 1976. Band members: Al Jarreau – vocals, Abraham Laboriel – bass, Joe Correro – percussion, Lynn Blessing – vibraphone and Tom Canning – keyboards
- Take Five, Interpretations of Jazz Standards & Bossa Nova, Sachal Studios Orchestra, 2011.
- Take Five, Sungha Jung, 2016. Sungha Jung - guitar.