Brubeck was always fascinated by the rhythms of everyday life. In a discussion with biographer Doug Ramsey, he recalled the rhythms he heard while working as a boy on cattle drives at the northern California ranch managed by his father.
The first time he heard polyrhythms — the use of two rhythms at the same time — was on horseback.
"The gait was usually a fast walk, maybe a trot," he said. "And I would sing against that constant gait of the horse. ... There was nothing to do but think, and I'd improvise melodies and rhythms."
Brubeck combined classical influences and his own innovations on the seminal 1959 album "Time Out" by his classic quartet that included alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, drummer Joe Morello and bassist Eugene Wright.
It was the first jazz album to deliberately explore time signatures outside of the standard 4/4 beat or 3/4 waltz time. It was also the first million-selling jazz LP and is still among the best-selling jazz albums of all time.
Columbia executives blocked its release for nearly a year — until label President Goddard Lieberson intervened.
"They said, 'We never put out music that people can't dance to, and they can't dance to these rhythms that you're playing,'" Brubeck recalled in 2010. He also wanted a painting by Joan Miro on the cover, something else the record company had never done.
"I insisted that we go with something new," he said. "And to their surprise, it became the biggest jazz recording they ever made."
The album opens with "Blue Rondo a la Turk," a piece inspired by Turkish street musicians Brubeck heard on a 1958 State Department tour. The piece was in 9/8 time — nine beats to the measure instead of the customary two, three or four beats — and blended folk rhythms with jazz and a Mozart piece.