Remembering Paul Desmond
Fifty 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.