I have put off writing about Paul Desmond for a long time. He is, without a doubt, my favorite alto sax player. He was born November 25, 1924 in San Francisco, California and died from lung cancer on May 30, 1977. He was 53 years old.
Desmond was born Paul Emil Breitenfeld. His father was Jewish and his mother was Irish Catholic. In the liner notes of the album that is the subject of this week’s JFASN, we are informed that he picked the name “Desmond” out of the phone book.
Paul Desmond’s name will forever be linked with that of his longtime friend and sometime bandmate, Dave Brubeck. Their friendship began in the mid-1940’s and continued until Desmond’s untimely death.
Desmond developed a nice career for himself without Brubeck after the pianist disbanded the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1967. He worked at times with Gerry Mulligan, Jim Hall, Bob James, Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette, and others. He also did a one-off concert with The Modern Jazz Quartet.
Desmond and Brubeck reunited several times after the dissolution of the Quartet, perhaps most notably in 1976 for the Quartet’s 25th anniversary tour. Their final collaboration took place only months before Desmond succumbed.
Desmond had a wry humor, as evidenced by this story that I have borrowed from his bio on Wikipedia:
Desmond reportedly owned a Baldwin grand piano, which he loaned to Bradley Cunningham, owner of the famous Bradley’s piano bar in Greenwich Village, with the condition that Mr. Cunningham had to move the large piano back to Desmond’s Upper West Side apartment to become part of Desmond’s estate. After this long and expensive process, Desmond willed the piano to Mr. Cunningham, a characteristic and final prank.
One more bit of Desmond humor, this one from the liner notes of the album you are about to read about:
Question from a radio announcer: What accounts for the melancholy in your playing?
Desmond, after a long silence: We-l-l… Probably the fact that I’m not playing better.”
Desmond is, of course, the composer of what is arguably the most famous jazz song ever written, “Take Five.” Upon Desmond’s death, the rights to the royalties from “Take Five” were donated to the American Red Cross. According to this blog post jazz journalist Doug Ramsay published on April 5, 2011, the total value of Desmond’s contributions to the Red Cross were, at that time, “well north of six million dollars.”
So which one of Desmond’s many albums have I decided to write about this week? It was a tough decision to make, but I finally decided on a disk from close to the end of his life. Considering that Dave Brubeck himself was the subject of JFASN #100 just a few weeks ago, I purposely chose a disk that does not have Brubeck on it.
That is the aptly named, “Pure Desmond,” produced by Creed Taylor and released in 1975 on the CBS label.
The personnel for “Pure Desmond” are:
Paul Desmond, alto sax
Ed Bickert, guitar
Ron Carter, bass
Connie Kay, drums
I have no way of knowing if this was simply due to coincidence, or if it’s another example of Paul Desmond’s humor, but this album titled “Pure Desmond” consists of ten songs, none of which he wrote.
The album opens with a Fats Waller/Clarence Williams song, “Squeeze Me.” This is a fine tune and a harbinger of what is to come, in the sense that it is filled with the warm, mellow sound that Desmond’s music was known for. Everyone gets their time in the limelight, and the music carries you along like dandelion sees on a summer breeze.
Next we are given “I’m Old Fashioned” from the pens of Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer. The opening seven seconds of this song have long intrigued me, sounding almost like the beginning of a medieval minstrel tune. Perhaps that was the intent, since it’s hard to imagine any music more old fashioned than that. Heh. At any rate, the rest of the song is a delightful mélange, lively-yet-mellow, with drummer Kay driving them forward at a nice pace.
Here are Desmond and the guys performing “I’m Old Fashioned.”
Let’s skip ahead a few tracks to “Till The Clouds Roll By,” a song written by Jerome Kern and, of all people, P.G. Wodehouse. I must admit that until I was researching this article, I had no idea that Wodehouse, widely known as a humorist, also had quite a career as a lyricist, specifically with Kern, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin.
You learn something new every day. On a good day, you even survive the lesson. 😉
There is no vocalist on “Pure Desmond,” and I am running very late with this article, so I’m afraid we’ll have to let the matter of the lyrics to “Till The Clouds Go By” pass this time ’round. Um, no pun intended. 😉
The song as presented here is a bouncy number, with drummer Kay once again moving the group forward with great energy. Bickert gets a nice solo here, and we can now see why Desmond fell in love with his fretwork, which also opens the piece. Carter’s bass is superb.
The final song I’m going to write about from this album is the next-to-last one on the disk, the “Theme From M*A*S*H* (Suicide Is Painless).” I was so enamored with the movie “M*A*S*H*” that it took me several years to warm up to the TV series. The one thing they had in common, besides having the same actor and actress playing the roles of Radar O’Reilly and Major Margaret “Hotlips” Houlihan, was the theme song.
What we have is a wonderfully melancholy song that could almost have been written with Desmond in mind. His playing style accentuates this delightful song that, while hardly celebrating its title subject, certainly raised more than a few eyebrows when the movie was released.
A bit of trivia: The lyrics to the song were written by Mike Altman, the then-14-year-old son of the movie’s director, Robert Altman. The senior Altman later told Johnny Carson that his son made more money for co-writing the song than he did for directing the film. (Based on information in this Wikipedia article.)
With Desmond’s wonderfully rich, warm interpretations, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that “Pure Desmond” will make a fantastic addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night.
Thank you for reading this.
To learn more about Paul Desmond and his music, you’ll find that Thom Jurek has penned a short bio of him for allmusic.com. Then we have Pure Desmond, an homage site that has a considerably more detailed biography than Jurek’s, plus a discography and links to three interviews with Desmond. And NPR has a nice artist page that is devoted to Desmond.
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