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Mark Zaleski

Boston saxophonist Mark Zaleski wants to honor jazz great Dave Brubeck and his lyricist wife, Iola, for the impact they made upon him and jazz in general.

Among the most popular, influential and recognized jazz artists of the 20th century, Brubeck also educated generations of jazz musicians, including Zaleski, at the Brubeck Institute in Stockton, California. 

“Dave is one of the good guys in music,” Zaleski said during his Christmas break. “He stood up for civil rights and he always tried to educate people. He was involved in the institute. He talked to all of us, shared stories with us and performed with us. Even in his 80s, Dave pushed us to work harder. I owe him so much.”

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Following Louis Armstrong, Brubeck was the second jazz artist to appear on the cover of Time magazine. His 1959 album, “Time Out,” was the first jazz album to sell a million copies. One of its tracks, “Take Five,” reached No. 25 on Billboard’s Top 40 and also sold a million copies.

On Wednesday at Chorum Hall, the Mark Zaleski Band will premiere its tribute to Brubeck. It's also Zaleski’s Louisiana debut. A full-time professor at the New England Conservatory of Music, Zaleski is performing his Brubeck program again the next day at the Jazz Education Network conference in New Orleans.

“This trip to Louisiana premieres all of the reimaginations of Dave Brubeck’s music that we’re going to be touring with throughout 2020,” Zaleski said of the year that also marks the centennial of Brubeck’s birth. 

Before Zaleski’s two years at the Brubeck Institute, he didn’t know if he wanted to be a professional musician. But after a friend applied to the institute at the University of the Pacific, Zaleski did the same.

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“I was shocked that they flew me to California to audition for Christian McBride at Yoshi’s (a noted jazz venue),” Zaleski remembered. “I didn’t even feel like I belonged there, but I had a good time and tried my best. If that hadn’t happened, I’d be a different person. I owe my career to Dave Brubeck.”

Throughout last year, Zaleski prepared for his Brubeck tribute by studying the pianist-composer’s decades of recordings.

“Before I went to the Brubeck Institute, ‘Take Five,’ which turns out is not a Brubeck composition, was as much as I knew,” he said. “But when I used last year to dig into all of his compositions, I realized how ahead of his time he was.”

Though polyrhythm and unconventional time signatures are common now, the classically influenced Brubeck pioneered their use in jazz during the 1940s and ’50s.

“That was a risky move for a popular artist,” Zaleski said. “Writing compositions in 11/4 time, you’d think that would shoot his career in the foot. But whether it did or didn’t, Dave pushed forward doing his own thing. That spirit inspires me.”

In that spirit, Zaleski’s performances of Brubeck’s music won’t be slavish renditions of the music.

“Dave would want me to make it my own,” he said. “He might say I should write my own music. Which I do, but I want to pay tribute to him by putting his compositions through a modern lens.”

Zaleski’s take on Brubeck classics such as “Blue Ronda a la Tuck,” “Unsquare Dance” and “The Duke” blend jazz with the saxophonist’s other influences. “Rock and funk inspiration while still respecting Dave’s sound,” he said.

Still a young musician, Zaleski, 34, hopes his fusion approach will win jazz converts.

“I want this to be fun, high energy, inviting,” he said. “If people see a band that connects to their other sonic sensibilities, that can be a 'gateway drug' for them to become lifelong jazz fans.”


Mark Zaleski — A Tribute to Dave Brubeck

7:30 p.m. Wednesday

Chorum Hall, 1024 Executive Park Ave.

$25

artsbr.org; markzaleskimusic.com