Paul Desmond

Lemme Tell Ya 'Bout Desmond

by Ben Varkentine


“Alianca”, one of the most beautiful tracks included on this compilation of the work of alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, puts me in mind of seeing a beautiful, long-haired girl for the first time. All of a sudden she seems to go into slow motion for a moment, hair framing her face as she moves. Perhaps that prose is a little purple, but I’m a romantic at the worst of times—and this sort of music gives one license. Paul Desmond played the kind of refined music one can luxuriate in like a day off. Gentle, breezy jazz that almost taps you on the shoulder and asks for permission to climb into your ears. He was with the Dave Brubeck Quartet for many years, writing their major hit, “Take 5”. This collection is said to be the first to draw from various labels to present a complete overview of Desmond’s recordings as a leader. On his own records Desmond rarely recorded with a pianist for reasons that should be obvious—but one exception he made was Herbie Hancock (if you’re going to make an exception, might as well be for Hancock). “El Condor Pasa”, a 1969 Paul Simon cover which also features Ron Carter on bass, sounds decades ahead of it’s time. And it wouldn’t surprise me to hear some experimental new waver had sampled it.

Many cuts here feature Desmond in counterpoint with a guitarist, most often but not only Jim Hall. The best example is “A Taste of Honey”, from 1964. Hall sets the rhythm strumming, and Desmond comes in “singing” his soft interpretation of the melody. Other pairings include Gerry Mulligan on the baritone sax; their calm duet on “Stardust” gives some kind of new meaning to the term “quiet storm”. Desmond also experimented—in his own good time, which means some one and a half years after they broke—with the rhythms of the bossa nova. Particularly on the Bossa Antigua album, from which this collection lifts three tunes. One piece, and I wish it was more, features Desmond with strings, which add a welcome tone to “Desmond Blue”. Strings can be painful (in any musical genre) if arranged without artistry—it’s the differences between spray-can graffiti and Renoir. Here, it’s as though they’re strengthening his argument that he is, in fact, blue. The whole thing culminates with “Samba With Some Barbeque”, subtitled an “interpolation” of Louis Armstrong’s “Struttin’...”, which incorporates many of the elements I’ve spoken of above, the guitar, the rhythms, and Desmond’s light and easy sound.

cover art

Paul Desmond

Lemme Tell Ya 'Bout Desmond

(Label M)

Lemme tell ya ‘bout being a critic. The best thing…well, the best thing is the writing. This isn’t the kind of job anyone does for the money, and it certainly isn’t the prestige. The one thing you should be able to say about any critic is that they love to write, even more than the things they’re writing about. The second best thing about being a critic, however, is that sometimes you’re sent music that you might never have listened to otherwise, sometimes new, sometimes, as Sinatra once called it, some nice things you’ve missed. Then you get to write a review urging people to give it a try.

Joel Dorn, co-producer of this compilation, says in the liner notes that he’s always though of Desmond as less a jazz musician than a painter, mentioning Monet. Co-producer Stewart Levine offers Renoir. Where do I stand, with my admittedly limited knowledge of fine art? There is a Renoir oil titled In the Meadow. It features two young girls in 19th century dresses, their backs to the “camera”, sitting in the meadow of the title. One is brunette, the other is blonde. The blonde holds a small group of flowers, and what appears to be her hat-it matches her dress-sits nearby. You cannot see their faces, but one assumes they are beautiful. Far off in the distance you can see a house which may or may not belong to one or both of them, and on a path in between, two more figures can be seen approaching. Probably young boys, who are about to see these girls for the first time. When all of a sudden they’ll seem to go into slow motion.

Topics: paul desmond
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