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Book Excerpts

Paul Desmond: Take Ten

By Published: December 3, 2008
"O Gato" was written by Jim Hall's friend Jane Herbert , and it's as charming as she is, which is saying a lot. The others are tunes I wrote. One is based on a minor adaptation of a melody indigenous to early American coffee houses, a few are extensions of themes that have been wandering through my head recently, and the one called "Curacao Doloroso" is a sort of three-stage operation. Originally I'd wanted to do "Heartaches," because it seemed so incongruous and because the original record of it had something of the same neolithic connection to bossa nova as early marching bands had to Gerry Mulligan. I wrote a different set of changes for it and we tried it, and it was so horrible that George Avakian emerged from the control room in the middle of the first take, waving his arms and shuddering. (This is a musical milestone of sorts, since George usually smiles serenely thru the most disastrous takes imaginable, hoping that something good will somehow happen and he'll be able to splice it in later. I think the only other time he walked out in the middle of a take, the studio was on fire.) So on a later date we used the chords and avoided the melody, which is what you're supposed to do in jazz anyhow, come to think of it, and it worked out nicely. (Since it's a different melody and a different set of chords, the writers of "Heartaches" won't be around looking for royalties—but if they ever feel like dropping by for a drink, I'm usually home between 4 and 6.)

As always, George Avakian masterminded the entire operation effortlessly, even with a telephone more or less permanently installed in one ear. (There was one point, I must admit, when the only way I could get his attention was to go out to the phone booth and call him.) I don't know how the phone calls worked out, but I love the album.

Avakian confirmed the story of the phone call, which Desmond loved to exaggerate. Paul told Gene Lees, "When I began with RCA, George Avakian was very high up in the company. He was sort of second in command. Sometime between the album with strings and Take Ten there was a change in the management and George was selling pencils in a tin cup outside RCA. He was really very much at loose ends. He had no office...he still had a few free lance projects to complete. Like he was assigned to completing what RCA regarded as my disastrous series of albums with Jim Hall...he would say to people, If you want to reach me, I'll be in Studio B at RCA between two and five p.m."

Sometimes, Desmond altered the story so that Avakian was not selling pencils but hanging around pay phones begging for nickels. "This was even more over the top, of course, but nobody took it seriously," Avakian said. "I was the president of NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences), but I had had it with the corporate music business, so I resigned from RCA and opened a nice office in Rockefeller Center, to work as an independent producer. "Paul's contract had not expired. The company wanted me to continue recording Paul, Sonny Rollins, Lambert-Hendricks-and-Bavan, Joe Williams and Joe Morello. If I got a call back at my office, my secretary would call me with a message. Occasionally, Paul would look up into the control room and see me on the telephone. On this occasion, Paul stayed in the studio while the engineers played back a take. Just as it ended, I got a phone call in the control room. It was Paul on the hall pay phone, saying, 'George, how was that take?' It was his understated way of saying, 'Listen, I hope you're paying attention to the session,' which, of course, I was. I broke up. He knew I'd get a kick out of it. It was a perfect example of why he was so much fun to be with."

Desmond did not like fast tempos, but his description of himself as the world's slowest alto player was one more extension of his customary self-deprecation. When Morello or Brubeck started a piece at a rapid clip to get a rise out of him, he thought and executed adroitly, but they could count on a reprimand when the set was over. Nor was he fond of extremely slow ballads. His ideal tempo was at the speed of a medium or medium-fast walk, and he never doubled the tempo of his improvisation in a display of virtuosity. His forte was melodic invention and swing. Most of the quartet recordings with Hall are at relaxed tempos, but there is a fast "Blues for Fun" at a metronome setting of 200, just short of prestissimo. "Glad to be Unhappy," from the album of the same name, is at the comparatively langorous tempo of mm 80. One of Rodgers and Hart's best ballads, its ABA form makes it also one of their most unusual. Desmond's solo is improvisation reduced to essence; there is not a superfluous note. The bassist is Eugene Wright, who said he was surprised that Paul asked him to be on the RCA sessions.

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