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Remembering Paul Desmond

Paul Desmond Down Beat 2Fifty years ago this month, Paul Desmond was on the cover of Down Beat. The other day, when I was buying a new reissue of some of his early recordings, the man behind the counter told me his theory, which in essence was that if it hadn’t have been for Desmond, we’d never have heard of Dave Brubeck.

I had to agree with him, for two reasons. First, the graceful sound of Desmond’s alto saxophone was the first thing you heard when you heard the Brubeck Quartet. It was the identifier. Just as important, Desmond wrote “Take Five”, the group’s biggest hit, the one you heard on Sunday lunchtimes on Two-Way Family Favourites. Probably a lot of people assumed that it had come from Brubeck’s pen, the one that wrote two genuine jazz standards, “The Duke” and “In Your Own Sweet Way”. But its ingenuity was the altoist’s work.

The Fresh Sound album, Desmond: Here I Am, starts with five 1954 tracks with a quintet featuring the bassist Bob Bates and the drummer Joe Dodge from the early Brubeck group, and continues with four from the same year with the Bob Bates Singers, originally issued together as Desmond’s first solo album, on the Fantasy label; then come eight tracks recorded two years later with a quartet for the same label.

Interestingly, there is no piano to be heard on any of the three sessions. One could make a mildly cruel joke about the relief of being temporarily free from Brubeck’s heavy-handed accompaniment, but it would be neither fair nor entirely true. But the pianoless setting certainly suited Desmond: there’s an airiness appropriate to his sound.

Desmond was noted for his dry wit. In the Down Beat interview, talking to Dan Morgenstern, he discussed Brubeck’s most recent attempt to team the quartet with a symphony orchestra, in an extended piece called Elementals. “I kind of hope it stays the last,” he said. “That sort of thing is more gratifying to the composer; to perform it is a kind of struggle. It’s a little frustrating when you’re on stage with 80 symphony musicians and succeed in functioning just about as well as you ordinarily do, and it’s considered a great accomplishment — like tap dancing under water.”

He was a bit of a curmudgeon, in an amusing way. “Between the discotheques and the avant-garde and the folk scene, there isn’t much left,” he observed. But he had kind words for Charles Mingus — “He can be fascinating and very moving to listen to, as well as hitting you with something very difficult” — and his idea of a discotheque would be something that played the music of Muddy Waters, Count Basie and Mose Allison, which sounds pretty good to me.

There was never a sense of struggle or difficulty in Desmond’s music. He was even capable of rising above the kitschy sound of the Bates Singers (although not to the degree that he transcended Bob Prince’s workaday arrangements for strings and woodwind on the RCA album Desmond Blue a few years later). The 1956 quartet tracks, with Don Elliott switching between mellophone and trumpet, require no allowances to be made: these are gloriously lucid, lyrical inventions on standards and originals, the absence of strain and challenge more than offset by the calm, balanced inventiveness of the leader’s improvisations.

By 1965, however, the caravan of jazz was moving on. I remember feeling a surge of righteous anger, after handing over half a crown for this copy of the magazine, when I noticed that the editors had chosen to feature him on the cover rather than the second-billed Ornette Coleman. Desmond died of lung cancer in 1977, aged 52, and time has told the truth about him, which is that he was a player of genuine originality who couldn’t have played a banal phrase if he’d tried.

* Desmond: Here I Am is on the Fresh Sound label. Desmond Blue is available on a six-CD box called The Complete RCA Albums Collection, released by Sony Legacy and including his much admired collaborations with the guitarist Jim Hall.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. It was often said his saxophone was as dry as a martini, and so was his wit. Desmond’s early demise cheated us of what would have been one of the great jazz memoirs (though there was recently a wonderfully obsessive illustrated biography). As you’ll remember, Richard, all that was ever published was a teaser chapter, in Punch in 1973. The title was going to be something they were often asked: How Many of You Are There in the Quartet. Here’s a link to that excerpt:

    September 21, 2015
  2. crocodilechuck #

    His RCA albums are wonderful, still fresh-sounding half a century hence.

    September 22, 2015
  3. Evan #

    Rsy Warleigh died earlier today.

    September 22, 2015
  4. Jeffery Gifford #

    “LIke tap dancing under water…” Yeah. Love that. His work with Jim Hall or the similarly talented Ed Bickert is a treat. As well as the above, his work on Jim Hall’s CONCIERTO shouldn’t be missed

    September 22, 2015
  5. Richard Harris #

    I share your reservations about Brubeck as he all too often hammers notes into the chipboard, but “Audrey” has been a very long term favourite.

    “Audrey is a truly ‘impromptu’ number. In a wistful mood, photographer-cineast Gijon Mili, who was present at the session, suddenly declared: “I’d like to see Audrey Hepburn come walking through the woods …” Still half lost in his thoughts, Paul Desmond replied: “So would I.” Dave started counting – “One, two, three, four…” – and that’s how Audrey was born.” Liner notes.

    True, embellished or not, its a superb track by all.

    September 22, 2015
  6. Thank you for your thoughts on Paul Desmond, although I wish you had written more on his graceful collaborations with guitarists, Jim Hall, and Ed Bickert. Although you are correct that time has proven him to be be a true original saxophonist.

    September 22, 2015
  7. Philip Clark #

    I should declare an interest: I’m writing a book on Brubeck and part of my book’s purpose is to present a counterbalance to exactly the line of argument you’re presenting here Richard re Dave and Paul. The very idea that without Desmond we would never ‘have heard of Brubeck’ strikes me as utter tosh – an off-the-peg opinion. It was Brubeck as pianist, composer and thinker about music who defined the sound, the technical approach and the compositional aesthetic of his quartet. Without Brubeck challenging him and forcing him to constantly up the ante, Desmond, like many effortlessly gifted people, would have been happy to coast, to play an endless sequence of flawlessly executed ballad performances, and then return home and NOT write his own long-awaited book about the Brubeck quartet. Some of his RCA albums suffer a chronic lack of ambition or purpose; some of them are unspeakably dull. And what about all the music Brubeck played after the ‘classic’ quartet ended and Desmond had died? That fantastic quartet with Gerry Mulligan? And his later groups with his sons, William O Smith and Bobby Militello?

    As regards Desmond ‘writing’ Take Five, the truth is more complicated. Desmond, it’s true, collected the royalties, but it was Brubeck who took the two melodic sequences that Desmond brought along to the recording session and fashioned them into a through-composed composition. It was Brubeck who came up with the Take Five vamp (you can hear similar vamp shapes emerging through his playing in 1958), and Brubeck who cottoned on to the fact that the 5/4 rhythmic pattern which Joe Morello had using to warm-up with before concerts would fit nicely underneath. None of this is meant to rain on Desmond’s parade. I adore his playing – enough to recognise that, without Brubeck’s itchy energy and curiosity, his achievements would likely have been far more modest.

    September 23, 2015
  8. Thank you for this post. I’m sure you know the rather lovely chapter on Paul D in Gene Lees’ book “Meet me at Jim & Andy’s”.

    September 23, 2015
  9. Ernesto #

    Eric Hobsbawn is sniffy about the Brubeck Quartet – ‘its merits are modest’ – and though he concedes the talent of Desmond he compares him to ‘an economics don’ lecturing mildly about international trade down his saxophone ( E.Hobsbawn The Jazz Scene).

    Personally I like Desmond’s ‘ Wave’ ( with Ed B) and ‘El Prince’.

    Brubeck’s In Your Own Sweet’ Way is lovely but did anyone notice before Miles Davis got hold of it?

    September 25, 2015

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