Thursday, September 3, 2015

Paul Desmond: An Appreciation

Lately I have been going through my digital music library and taking taking all the recordings of the saxophone players who have influenced me the most and creating separate play lists dedicated to each artist.  The idea is to have everything I have of that artist in one place so I can spend some time listening to just them.  Playing the alto sax, I started with my main influences on that horn; Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, Paul Desmond, Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Parker, etc., and will expand my lists to include tenor players, as well as the few baritone players, soprano players, etc.  I listen for what makes them unique, their tone, their harmonic approach, the devices each one uses that are as identifiable as one's handwriting.  Every player will have musical devices that they will use over and over again, no matter how harmonically sophisticated they are, and when you listen to anyone long enough, you begin to hear what they are.  Just like when a person talks, using phrases or expressions unique to the individual, so it is with music, another language.  In the coming weeks, I will write articles on those saxophone players I spend the most time listening to.

Although Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges are my main influences on saxophone, Paul Desmond has also been a big influence on my playing.  He came along at a time when Charlie Parker created a new jazz language, and everyone followed.  While Paul Desmond definitely admired Charlie Parker, he forged his own sound and musical identity not beholden to Parker.  His sound was light and airy, his lines melodic.  His improvisations were thematic, and as a result, he could play one chorus after another and not repeat ideas, yet he never meandered aimlessly, he just made his statement and then made room for someone else.  Many called his music cerebral, but I disagree. He did have a highly developed intellect and great sense of humor, but the lyricism of his playing showed a man with a deep sense of beauty.  His use of altissimo (notes above the normal register of the saxophone using alternate fingerings) sounded so effortless you would think that they were a normal part of the saxophone's range.

Paul Desmond was born Paul Emil Breitenfeld in San Francisco in 1924.  His father was Jewish and his mother Irish-Catholic. Later on, when he changed his name to Desmond, he joked he did it because "Breitenfeld sounded too Irish".  He began on the clarinet when in high school.  During WWII he was drafted into the US Army, but he joined a military band and never saw combat.  Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond first met in 1944 when Brubeck tried out for the 253rd Army Band which Desmond belonged to.  According to Desmond, he was taken aback by the chord changes Brubeck was playing at the audition.  After they were both discharged, Paul Desmond got a gig with the Jack Fina Orchestra.  After finishing with Jack Fina, Paul Desmond approached Dave Brubeck and convinced him to hire him for a group and in 1951 the Dave Brubeck Quartet was formed.  The group stayed together until 1967, but Brubeck and Desmond still played together on and off until Desmond's death in 1977.  The most famous composition in the Brubeck repertoire is "Take Five", which was composed by Desmond.  During his time with Brubeck and after the break up of the quartet, Desmond did other projects as sideman or soloist with Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Jim Hall, the Modern Jazz Quartet and others. Paul Desmond played a Selmer Super Balanced Action with a M.C. Gregory 4A-18M mouthpiece and Rico 3 1/2 reeds.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet (l. to r. Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, Joe Morello, Eugene Wright)

Paul Desmond was not just known for his music, but also for his dry wit and sense of humor and clever use of puns.  Many of his "Desmondisms" have become famous.  For example, when seeing an old girlfriend in the company of an old but obviously rich gentleman, Desmond remarked "So that's how the world ends, not with a whim but with a banker".

Other Quotes and Desmondisms:

 I think I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to sound like a dry martini.
I have won several prizes as the world’s slowest alto player, as well as a special award in 1961 for quietness.

I was unfashionable before anyone knew who I was.

I’m glad [Ornette Coleman] is such an individualist. I like the firmness of thought and purpose that goes into what he’s doing, even though I don’t always like to listen to it. It’s like living in a house where everything’s painted red.

On the secret of his tone: "I honestly don't know! It has something to do with the fact that I play illegally."

Of writer Jack Kerouac he said, "I hate the way he writes. I kind of love the way he lives, though."

His response to the annoying banality of an interviewer, "You're beginning to sound like a cross between David Frost and David Susskind, and that is a cross I cannot bear."

Walking into his record label's office and seeing a large potted plant "With fronds like these who needs anemones?"

That wit and dry sense of humor could also be heard when playing his solos, in the quotes he uses. It is a popular jazz game to insert a quote from another song into a solo, and while for the most part the quote sticks out, even from the greatest players, Desmond had a way of playing it like it was actually part of the song he was playing, and it often has taken me several listenings to realize what the quote was.  For example, in "Blight Of The Fumblebee" from his recording with Gerry Mulligan "Two Of A Mind", he inserts a quote from J.S. Bach's 5th Brandenburg Concerto, which is integrated so well into his solo it sounds as if it was written in.

At Montreaux, Desmond plays a beautiful version of a song called "Emily" which was the theme for a movie called "The Americanization of Emily", and he quotes a song "Would You", which was used in the classic movie "Singing In The Rain".  He integrates the quote so subtly that the only indication of him having played it is the self-pleased smile he has after playing it.

Paul Desmond had a taste for Scotch whiskey and was a heavy smoker.  He was also known to have dabbled in LSD.  When he was diagnosed with lung cancer, he quipped to the doctor that his liver was still healthy.  Paul Desmond played his last concert with Dave Brubeck in New York City in February 1977.  On May 30th 1977, Desmond passed away.  He was cremated and his ashes scattered.

Paul Desmond may not have been a musical innovator, but he was an original in every sense of the word. His tone is instantly recognizable when you hear it, his way of phrasing and use of counterpoint unlike anyone else's, and his lines are sheer beauty.  His love of melody could make you forget that his improvisations were filled with original and complex changes.  As he said:

“Complexity can be a trap. You can have a ball developing a phrase, inverting it, playing it in different keys and times and all. But it’s really more introspective than communicative. Like a crossword puzzle compared to a poem.”

Here is more of Paul Desmond


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