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Posts tagged ‘Paul Desmond’

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.

The Brubeck/Bernstein dialogues


It wouldn’t surprise me if you’d never heard, or even heard of, Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein. It isn’t in any of the guides to recommended jazz recordings that I’ve read, and I don’t remember seeing any mention of it in the many excellent obituaries that appeared when Dave Brubeck died, aged 91, last December. Even in an era when his contribution has been handsomely reassessed, it remains a bit of a black sheep in his discography.

Yet it’s always been a record of which I’ve been extremely fond, and it’s a pleasure for me that it has finally made what I believe to be its first appearance on CD (** I’m wrong: see correction below). Even now, however, despite featuring two of Columbia Records’ biggest names of the early 1960s, it has been refused the seal of approval that a release on Sony Legacy represents, and has been shuffled intead down to the budget Hallmark label, which means that although the repackagers have used the original front cover design, today’s buyer isn’t deemed worthy of the sleeve information that came with the original 12-inch LP release.

No matter. The relevant details are to hand. The first side of the album consists of Howard Brubeck’s four-part Dialogues for Jazz Combo and Orchestra,  first performed by the New York Philharmonic and the Dave Brubeck Quartet under the baton of Leonard Bernstein at Carnegie Hall in December 1959 — the month that Brubeck’s Time Out, containing “Take Five”, was released — and recorded the following January 30 at one of Columbia’s two New York studios, probably the deconsecrated Armenian Church on East 30th Street. The second side presents four of Bernstein’s Broadway theatre songs, three of them from West Side Story, recorded a fortnight later by the quartet alone: the classic line-up of Brubeck (piano), Paul Desmond (alto saxophone), Gene Wright (bass) and Joe Morello (drums).

Howard Brubeck was Dave’s older brother, preceding his sibling as a student of the French composer Darius Milhaud at Mills College, a liberal arts institution in the Bay Area (its alumni include Terry Riley, Phil Lesh and Steve Reich). He became Milhaud’s assistant, taught composition at San Diego State College and ended his career as dean of humanities at Palomar Junior College in San Marcos, California. Dialogues appears to be his only recorded composition.

The four movements are titled Allegro, Andante (Ballad), Adagio (Ballad) and Allegro (Blues). Inevitably, the critics of the day assumed that the two Brubecks and their superstar conductor were putting a toe into the waters of the Third Stream, the late-’50s movement created by the musicologist-composer Gunther Schuller, who wanted to find ways of combining jazz with classical music. Most of them criticised it for an absence of obvious musical ambition: what Howard Brubeck did was not to fuse the two forms in an attempt to discover a third, but simply juxtapose them. So for most of the time rather portentous orchestral passages reminiscent of Aaron Copland — stentorian brass, perky woodwind — are succeeded by bits that sound like conventional 1950s jazz-with-strings.

I don’t mind that at all, because the material always feels like it has substance and the players sound as though they’re having fun. I bought it on its release in 1961 and I’ve probably listened to the orchestral piece no more than two or three times in the last 40 years, but I found that I remembered every note. It isn’t profound, but it’s unfailingly intelligent and creative, and sometimes genuinely exciting, and it calls on the full resources of Brubeck and his musicians. Andante (Ballad) has a tune as pretty as brother Dave’s classic “In Your Own Sweet Way”, giving Morello a chance to demonstrate his immaculate brush-work, while Wright sounds pretty much the equal of more highly rated bass-players of the era. Adagio (Ballad) moves from an astringent passage for strings into full-blown romanticism behind Desmond, and the closing movement — although the mention of the blues in the title is a little misleading — finds the quartet achieving a genuine interaction with the orchestra as the intensity builds from a delicious conversation for trumpet and bassoon through angular string figures towards a beautiful moment when the orchestra detonates Desmond into the first of two short but very fine solos over the rhythm section at its swinging best. The closing ensemble climax is prefaced by a 32-bar solo which shows what an unassumingly adventurous pianist Brubeck could be. (It reminded me of a lovely self-deprecatory story he once told about bumping into the avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor, who told him how much he admired his playing and proclaimed that he saw him as the missing link. “He didn’t say between what and what,” Brubeck said.)

What a pity whoever remastered the recording saw fit to cut off the final chord, leaving no hint of natural reverb — particularly since Columbia’s 30th Street studio was renowned for its inherent properties in that respect. But I suppose that’s what happens when you bang something out on a budget label and flog it for less than a fiver.

Did I say something about the quartet swinging? But isn’t what they were supposed not to do? What rubbish. I saw them at the De Montfort Hall in Leicester during their UK tour in 1962, at the height of their popular success. It was my first direct exposure to American jazz musicians, and they proved that no group including Wright and Morello could fail to swing like the clappers on demand, whatever the material or the environment. And that’s what we find on the tracks minus the orchestra, where their playing is unfailingly excellent, particularly on a luminous version of “Maria”, where — if I’ve got it right — Desmond plays the theme in 4/4 while the rhythm section are playing in three. It’s the sort of rhythmic game for which they became famous with “Take Five”, “Unsquare Dance” and so on, and as usual they settle into a regular four for the solos. The delicacy of Brubeck’s solos throughout these sides is exceptional. He really was a remarkable musician. And Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein doesn’t deserve its obscurity.

* The photograph of the quartet — left to right: Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Gene Wright, Joe Morello — is from the cover of the album.

** Philip Clark (@MusicClerk) kindly points out that Dialogues was reissued in a series of CDs called Bernstein Century, and the whole thing came out in January 2011 via Essential Jazz Classics. I’m afraid I don’t know whether either of those versions preserved a little reverb at the end of the suite.