Jazz Institute of Chicago

Paul Desmond

Paul Desmond
by Stuart Nicholson
Paul Desmond Live
Horizon A&M SP-850, Verve 543 501-2 (+CD issue).

Desmond (alt); Ed Bickert (g); Don Thompson (bs); Jerry Fuller (d)
25, 27, 30, 31 October and 1 November 1975.

Wendy. Wave. Things ain't what they used to be. Nancy. Manha de Carnival. Here's that rainy day. My funny Valentine. Take five.

"There is so much interior room within the limitations of harmonic and melodic playing," Desmond once said, "you don't have to cancel out all the rules to make progress. In some ways, it's more of a challenge to refine one thing and find something in it that hasn't been done before."[i]

That challenge began on record with Dave Brubeck in 1950-51[ii] and continued until shortly before his death in 1977, when he guested on the title track of Chet Baker's album You Can't Go Home Again (+A&M CDA0805). However, it was his tenure as a charter member of Brubeck's quartet from 1951-67 where he built his reputation. By the end of the 1950s the group had risen to become the most popular attraction in jazz and Desmond its most famous sideman.

From the beginning, Desmond possessed a personal and highly original voice on his instrument with a light, dry tone often conveniently rationalized as an extension of the Frankie Trambauer-Lester Young lineage, but without doing it justice. For all its 'dryness', by the time of his solo on These foolish things from Dave Brubeck's 1953 recording of Jazz at Oberlin (+OJC-046 and Fantasy +FCD60013) it was also full and round and remarkably even throughout the three octaves of the saxophone. More importantly, he was one of the very few improvisers whose playing could be said to be wholly his own; without precedent, his style was subservient only to the broadest of category: cool.

Like Konitz and Pepper, Desmond's playing owed nothing to the omnipresent influence of Parker, at its zenith in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Yet even within this tiny counter-current, Desmond's style was unique and widely admired by musicians as diverse as Gerry Mulligan and Anthony Braxton.[iii] "There are so many imitators of Parker and to me Paul is one of the few true individuals on his instrument," Brubeck once asserted.[iv]

A particularly melodic player, his unhurried lyricism served to disguise how daringly polytonal his ideas could be when jousting with Brubeck's rumbustious piano playing. His intonation throughout the whole range of the saxophone was inch-perfect, allowing him abruptly to switch from one octave to another, answering, paraphrasing and commenting on his solo in different registers of his instrument, often in implied counterpoint, yet without loss of balance or symmetry to his line, such as his fine solo on Balcony rock from Brubeck's Jazz Goes to College (+Columbia 465682 2).

One of the first saxophonists to explore and control the extreme range of the saxophonev; even today his use of high notes impress with their fullness of tone, their ease of execution and their tasteful use within the overall concept of his work.

Despite the critical brickbats leveled at the Brubeck-Desmond alliance, their relationship was one of genuine empathy. Brubeck's style, still largely misunderstood, as much by critics[vi] as fans (but not by a Milhaud or a Cecil Taylor), underwent a remarkable transformation as soon as the alto saxophonist stepped up to the microphone.

Desmond wanted a quite specific musical climate in which to conduct business, speaking of his aversion to accompanists who "wait for you to leave a hole and play some tricky little thing that sounds great for them but hangs-up your line of thought".[vii] He insisted on the minimum of musical interaction with his accompanists, something Brubeck respected and in so doing revealed, in contrast to his solo work, a remarkably sensitive side to his playing.

While Desmond always honored Brubeck's wish that he not make recordings under his own name using a pianist, a consistent feature of his work away from Brubeck was his preference for passive rhythm sections. It was as much a feature of his work with guitarist Jim Hall[viii] as his albums on the CTI and A&M labels.

One of the few outsiders allowed to sit-in with the MJQ, The Only Recorded Performance of Paul Desmond with the Modern Jazz Quartet (+Finesse Records FINLP6050), reveals him totally at home amid the group's unobtrusive and uncomplicated accompaniment. "I guess we always thought about things the same way," explained Lewis.[ix]

Indeed, Connie Kay from the MJQ was a regular on Desmond's sessions with Jim Hall, beginning in 1959 on Warner Bros. and continuing through four albums for RCA Victor, with MJQ bassist Percy Heath appearing on the first and last dates.

Desmond wanted time and space to unravel his long, melodic solos, each a miniature gem of the improvisers art, and was careful not to be blown off-course by the intrusion of other people's ideas into his private musical universe. His solos were typically based on the basic unit of a quaver, semiquavers were always used sparingly, thus a Desmond solo never sounded rushed. He favored smooth, unaccented lines and approached chord sequences horizontally, never seeming to become enmeshed in the harmonic thickets of a song.

He was a player whose work could truly be said to be poetic in conception and was one of a select few improvisers in jazz who could sustain a cogent flow of melodically original ideas over several choruses while remaining free from repetition, cliché, rhetoric, bombast, habit or pattern-running.

In 1973, six years after he left Brubeck, Desmond was persuaded out of semi-retirement to play the Half Note in New York. It was a first step into a more active jazz life that saw him travelling from time to time to Toronto where he performed with the guitarist Bickert, who appeared, along with Ron Carter and Kay, on Pure Desmond (+Epic ZK64767). In the fall of 1975, Desmond played a two week engagement at Toronto's Bourbon Street with a Canadian group led by Bickert who were wholly attuned to the saxophonist's style, based on the time honored aesthetics of proportion, balance and symmetry.

Bickert, whom Desmond described as 'unique'[x], provided the saxophonist with precisely the sort of accompaniment he needed; a delicate balancing act avoiding the predictable while providing a discrete, supportive presence behind the soloist. He also went along with desmond's preference for familiar keys, especially Eb, with "Wendy", "Things ain't what they used to be", "Nancy", "Take five", and "My funny valentine" all based in the key that transposed for alto is, of course, C.

Desmond, who once, tongue-in-cheek, claimed to have won an award for quietness, had long realized intensity need not be synonymous with volume. His solo on 'Wendy", an original 32-bar ABAC composition, is assembled in a way similar to constructing a house of cards. Each fragile phrase is laid out, one on top of the other, the melodic continuity of his ideas wholly dependent on the relationship of what had preceded it. It creates a beguiling tension in that the further his solo progresses, the greater the chance that the next card he lays might bring the whole crashing to the ground. It never happens of course; instead he assembles a series of quietly beautiful ideas that are the essence of his art.

On much of Desmond's recorded work under his own name it is noticeable that away from the friction of Brubeck's playing he was a significantly more passive player, concentrating on his sound for its own sake, "If you're playing slow and melodically, which I prefer," he once said, "...I try to get a pure sound on every note I hit, with the overtones implicit in that note."[xi]

Here, this concern seems at the forefront of his mind on "My funny valentine", where he seems to savor every note he plays as it emerges over the slow moving harmonic backdrop. Yet the extra edge a live audience often brings to a performance did not allow him to dwell too long and hard on this aspect of his playing. "Things ain't what they used to be", a number he played at the White House in 1969 for Duke Ellington's 70th Birthday Celebration and stunned the Duke, and everyone else, with his perfect take-off of Johnny Hodges, is here played with engaging modesty and a freshness that is the eternal mark of quality.

Desmond's blues might be cool, but they are his own; indeed, it is difficult to think of any other musician in jazz whose playing steadfastly refused to draw on that stock-pile of public domain blues licks built-up by musicians over the years that somehow seem to find their way into most solos in the 12-bar idiom.

Other than Tchaikovsky's use of 5/4 in the second movement of the Pathétique Symphony, Desmond's enduring "Take five" is probably the most famous use of the compound time signature in Western music. In practical terms, 5/4 tends to be divided into two simple meters, either 2/4 plus 3/4, or as here, 3/4 plus 2/4. However, it is often overlooked how the Take Five theme represents a perfect example of Desmond's originality of melodic construction.

The song is a standard 32-bar AABA tune in the minor, with the A sections based on a simple two chord vamp. Against this static harmonic backdrop, it is the integrity of Desmond's line that attracts and intrigues us. In contrast to a show-tune written with a vocalist in mind, this is a melody which is wholly instrumental in conception and unfolds much like an improvised solo, which is part of its great attraction. Although sounding spontaneously conceived, there is nevertheless great symmetry in his line that compels our attention so that the ear is drawn to theme rather than the uncomplicated harmonic movement in the accompaniment, which passes by almost unnoticed.

Desmond was one of the few improvisers who preferred improvising on long-form songs, indeed, his discography with Brubeck contains several examples, not least a memorable version of the 68-bar "The way you look tonight".[xii] Here "Wave", a 44-bar AABA song constructed with the A sections of 12 bars and a 'traditional' middle eight, becomes a perfect vehicle for his lyricism with its theme that extends through the unusually wide interval of a 12th. And while "Manha da Carnival" is not a long-form composition, it nevertheless reveals his preference for songs that are a little different to the norm; here the form comprises an A and a B section of 16 bars each, plus a 4 bar tag (not used during the improvisation).

A great romantic, Desmond's discography is filled with countless superior standards. "Nancy" and "Here's that rainy day" are transformed so completely his melodic ideas seem to stand out in sharp relief against their familiar melodies, yet despite the distance he travels from the songwriter's original intent, he nevertheless succeeds in remaining engaged in the emotional meaning of the songs. Paul Desmond Live remains an excellent example of this non-combative, yet wholly engaging style that was a major alternative to every other saxophonist in jazz.[xiii]

It is a matter of regret, however, that he kept his steely side under wraps. Although Brubeck, in several interviews, has mentioned how Desmond disliked fast tempos, his playing on "Perdido", "The way you look tonight" and "How high the moon" from Jazz at Oberlin, reveal him pushing towards the fastest tempi in jazz.[xiv] Here his playing is more declamatory and sounds for all the world as if he were in a cutting contest where he is the only competitor, trying to better himself with each succeeding chorus. His ideas are just as articulate and melodic as ever, but played with an intensity that is entirely absent at slower tempos and represent an area of his performing personality that was never fully explored on record.

This then is perhaps the only criticism that can be laid at this remarkable player's feet. Constantly inhabiting slow and slow-medium tempos can ultimately be limiting since creating one mood and sustaining it means by definition it excludes as much as it includes. It is to Desmond's credit, however, that what he did include consistently merits our attention.

i. down beat, 9 September 1965, page 25
ii. The Octet. The precise date has never been pinned down but it is generally thought to be c1950, although Brubeck suggests as early as 1946
iii. down beat, 25 March 1976, page 20; Braxton memorised complete choruses of Desmond's work
iv. All in Good Time by Marion McPartland. (OUP, New York 1987), page 63
v. Above and including high F# on the alto
vi. But not the perceptive critic Ted Gioia in West Coast Jazz, pages 86-99
vii. Jazz Masters of the Fifties by Joe Goldberg, page 160
viii. The Complete Recordings of The Paul Desmond Quartet with Jim Hall, Mosaic (MR6/MD4-120)
ix. Liner notes, The Only Recorded Performance of Paul Desmond with the Modern Jazz Quartet (Finesse Records [A] FINLP6050)
x. Liner notes, The Paul Desmond Quartet Live
xi. down beat, 25 March 1976, page 19
xii. Jazz at Oberlin
xiii. A further six numbers recorded at these sessions appeared in 1992 as Paul Desmond Quartet: Like Someone in Love, Telarc (A) CD83319, including "Just squeeze me" and "Nuages" which had appeared on Pure Desmond
xiv. All off the scale of a standard metronome; "How high the moon", for example, about l = 310-20.

Stuart Nicholson is the author of five books on jazz and is the only European jazz writer to have received two Notable Book of the Year citations from The New York Times Review of Books. His latest book Reminsicing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington is published by Northeastern University Press. He is also co-author of The Essential Jazz Records Vol. 2: Modernism to Postmodernism with Max Harrison and Eric Thacker.

Copyright ©2002 Jazz Institute of Chicago. All rights reserved.

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