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Sunday 4 December 2016

Joe Morello

Jazz drummer was an indispensable part of the Dave Brubeck Quartet renowned for his superb talent

Published 20/03/2011 | 05:00

Joe Morello, who died on March 12 aged 82, was a jazz drummer renowned for his great technical accomplishment and delicacy of approach.

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Best known for his work with the Dave Brubeck Quartet over a span of more than 12 years, Morello played on 120 albums (60 of them with Brubeck) and went on to become a highly valued teacher of percussion.

Joseph Morello was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on July 17, 1928. Partially sighted from birth, he began learning the violin at the age of six, and three years later performed the Mendelssohn concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Although treated as a child prodigy, and apparently destined for a career as a concert violinist, he gave up the instrument in his early teens. This, he later explained, was after hearing Heifetz in person, and realising that he could never achieve such perfection.

He took up percussion instead and studied with a local teacher, who advised him to concentrate on jazz drumming rather than aim to become an orchestral percussionist. Fortunately, among Morello's contemporaries in the Boston area were several future distinguished jazz musicians, including the saxophonist Phil Woods, the guitarist Sal Salvador and the vibraphonist Teddy Charles. They studied and played together and helped one another to find work.

After touring with Glen Gray's band in 1950, Morello moved to New York, where he played with a series of small bands, mostly led by guitarists, including Johnny Smith, Tal Farlow, Jimmy Raney and Sal Salvador. He was also briefly a member of Stan Kenton's "progressive jazz" orchestra.

In 1953, Morello joined the trio led by the English pianist Marian McPartland for a series of long engagements at the Hickory House, on West 52nd Street. The trio became a great favourite with New York audiences and firmly established Morello's reputation as a drummer with a distinctly individual style.

Upon leaving the trio in 1956, Morello had many offers of lucrative work from, among others, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. He chose to accept a temporary two-week engagement with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, whose drummer had suddenly quit. In the event, his tenure lasted for more than 12 years.

Brubeck was already a jazz star. Two years earlier his picture had appeared on the cover of Time magazine and his following, especially among students and young professionals, was vast. Morello's arrival completed what is still regarded as the "classic" quartet, the other members being Brubeck himself on piano, the alto saxophonist Paul Desmond and Eugene Wright on bass.

One of the quartet's albums, in particular, demonstrates Morello's aptness for his role. Time Out (Columbia, 1959) contains several pieces in time-signatures which were then outlandish, notably Take Five (in 5/4) and Blue Rondo à la Turk (in 9/8). It was probably Morello's superbly natural-sounding and tuneful drum solo, as much as Desmond's catchy tune, which made the former a worldwide hit. Take Five is still the only jazz record that many people instantly recognise.

After touring the world many times, Brubeck disbanded the quartet in November 1967. Morello was now a star on his own account, having topped music magazine polls all over the world and become a model for budding drummers everywhere. He took to teaching and demonstrating technique at "drum clinics". He published numerous instructional books and videos, and wrote regular columns in the journals Modern Drumming and Percussive Notes.

Among his pupils were the leading American session drummer Danny Gottlieb, who continued studying with him for 30 years, and Bruce Springsteen's drummer Max Weinberg.

Sunday Independent

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