Paul Desmond: Take Ten


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This article appears in Chapter 28 of Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond by Doug Ramsey (Parkside Publications, 2005).

When Desmond had time off from the Brubeck group, he was likely to be recording under his own name. Beginning with the first Desmond Blue session, he and Jim Hall were in RCA's famous studio A (shades of Toscanini, Horowitz and Heifitz) or studio B nineteen times from 1961 to 1965 for recording sessions that produced five albums. Connie Kay was a constant. The immaculate time, lacy cymbal work and firm propulsion of his drumming fulfilled Desmond's vision of Lester Young's little tinky-boom. Bassists rotated through the series—Eugene Wright on loan from Brubeck, Percy Heath from the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Gene Cherico from Stan Getz. In his liner notes, Desmond wrote that Cherico, the least known of the three, was "becoming a thoroughly fantastic bassist." Seventeen of the thirty-four pieces were accomplished in a flurry of sessions from June 5 to June 25, 1963, the other half in July, August and September of 1964.

RCA released the albums quickly after their recording and post-production. The first of the quartet collections was Take Ten, with a title tune that Desmond hoped would duplicate the success of "Take Five." He wrote, "TAKE TEN is another excursion into 5/4 or 10/8, whichever you prefer. Since writing TAKE FIVE a few years back, a number of other possibilities in the 5 & 10 bag have come to mind from time to time. TAKE TEN is one of them." He wished that the possibilities would include another hit, but in vain. Sales for the album and the other Desmond RCAs were merely respectable. In the notes, Desmond introduced himself and Hall.

Briefly, then, I'm this saxophonist from the Dave Brubeck Quartet, with which I've been associated since shortly after the Crimean War. You can tell which one is me because when I'm not playing, which is surprisingly often, I'm leaning against the piano. I also have less of a smile than the other fellows. (This is because of the embouchure, or the shape of your mouth, while playing, and is very deceptive. You didn't really think Benny Goodman was all that happy, did you? Nobody's that happy.) I have won several prizes as the world's slowest alto player, as well as a special award in 1961 for quietness.

My compatriot in this venture is Jim Hall, about whom it's difficult to say anything complimentary enough. He's a beautiful musician—the favorite guitar-picker of many people who agree on little else in music, and he goes to his left very well. Some years ago he was the leading character, by proxy, in a movie starring Tony Curtis (Sweet Smell Of Success), a mark of distinction achieved only recently by such other notables as Hugh Hefner and Genghis Khan. He's a sort of combination Pablo Casals and W.C. Fields and hilariously easy to work with except he complains once in a while when I lean on the guitar.

I asked Hall to talk about Desmond's playing. "The first thing that comes to mind," he said, "is his melodic sense." As opposed to what a lot of guys still do, play licks and phrases that will fit over a certain kind of chord change, he went straight to the melody all the time. He would make these remarkable melodic connections through some complicated chords, beautifully constructed melodies so that they would fit any kind of chord progression. It would always come out melodic. And he had that beautiful sound."

Hall was one of the first American musicians to return from Brazil with evidence of bossa nova, that felicitous melding of samba and harmonies from the French impressionists and jazz. Four of the pieces in Take Ten are bossa novas. Desmond saw deeply into the music's beautiful possibilities and was one of the its most eloquent American interpreters. In a number of conversations, he told me how he regretted not having boarded the bossa nova bandwagon years earlier. He thought he might have been able to help steer it toward purer artistic expression and away from the commercial exploitation that resulted in bossa nova knock-offs of every farfetched description, among them Eydie Gorme's hit "Blame It on the Bossa Nova."

"Theme From Black Orpheus" and "Samba De Orfeu," along with "Embarcadero" and "El Prince," are in a rhythm which by now I suppose should be called bossa antigua. (It's too bad the bossa nova became such a hula-hoop promotion. The original feeling was really a wild, subtle, delicate thing but it got lost there for a while in the avalanche. It's much too musical to be just a fad; it should be a permanent part of the scene. One more color for the long winter night, and all.)

Still, he was skeptical about bossa nova's staying-and selling-power. In a letter to his father, he wrote:

"Embarcadero" and "El Prince" are sort of bossa novas but we're not really admitting it, figuring that by October if you say bossa nova to anybody they'll just scream and jump out the window. They were provisionally titled "X" and "Y," respectively, which in a way are better titles... Avakian picked "El Prince," referring obliquely to Bob Prince, noted arranger, so he can absorb the guilt for that one. And "Embarcadero" is excusable since it's like home. And people not from San Francisco always think it sounds romantic. iv

In his liner notes, Paul noted Connie Kay's special contribution to Bossa Antigua.

At the end of "Alone Together," Connie hit the big cymbal a good whang there and it sailed off the drum set and crashed on the floor. After the hysterical laughter subsided we were getting set to tear through it one more time but we listened to it anyway, out of curiosity, and it sounded kind of nice so we left it in. That's one of the few advantages this group has over the MJQ—if Connie's cymbal hits the floor on an MJQ record date, you by God know it, but with this group you can't really be sure.

Desmond was taken with his father's ability as a lyricist and continued urging him to provide words for his songs. Emil apparently wrote lyrics for "Embarcadero" and "Take Ten," but only those for "Embarcadero" materialized in Rick Breitenfeld's cache of Desmondania. Around Christmas time, 1963, Paul wrote home that Judy Holliday had become an Emil Breitenfeld fan.

Judy was delighted with the "Take Ten" lyric. Especially where it goes "oops," although I have to report that she also laughed happily at the point in "Embarcadero" where it goes "oh, fog," but that's because she has a low singer's mind. I'm very impressed, as always, but it means more coming from her because she really writes great lyrics, which you just have to take my word for, and she hadn't been able to come up with anything for either of those tunes. I'm not sure anybody is ever going to sing them, but please put yourself down officially as the lyricist and I'll start song-plugging."

Emil was philosophical about the likelihood of vocal versions of the songs creating a stir.

As to song plugging, don't take it too seriously, your stuff is instrumental, not meant to be sung, and apparently doing very nicely thank you without vocal interpretation. Twenty or more years ago there was a tune to which a highly competent lyric writer gave the name "Strictly Instrumental." I don't take my efforts seriously either, in fact they have no value whatever in helping your music, which doesn't need help anyhow.

In his notes for Bossa Antigua, the followup album to Take Ten, Desmond identified himself as "the John P. Marquand of the alto saxophone," referring to the best-selling novelist whose social satires some critics dismissed as slick. After expanding on the thought that by now the bossa nova (new thing) had become an old thing, Desmond discussed the tunes, pointing out that all but two were original compostions. The title piece and "Samba Cepeda," which was issued years after the original album, are different takes of the same tune. The alternate title was a way for Paul to honor Orlando Cepeda, the great .300 hitter of the San Francisco Giants, a passionate music lover. Desmond wrote "Alianca," but Gloria Steinem titled it.

"I can't take complete credit," Steinem said, "because it was during the Kennedy administration and the Alliance for Progress was underway in Latin America. That made me think of "Alianca," a Spanish word understandable in English. Also, when I was working part of the time at Show magazine, for some reason some of the editors had been in Brazil and they brought back early bossa nova recordings. It was easy, deep, interesting. I remember saying to Paul, 'This would be wonderful for you to play.' In later years he would say he wished he had recorded it then."

Desmond elaborated on the other pieces.

"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.

"The nicest thing;" Wright said, "one day he asked me when we were playing with Dave, 'Would you mind doing a date with me?' I told him I'd love to. He said, 'I want to do "Take Ten" and I'd like for you to play with me.' Fine. Wonderful. So we got together and we did some other standards; two sessions. I never expected to do anything with him because I didn't feel I was in the direction he and Jim Hall were going. But we did it and it was a ball."

Nestled among the standards in the box set reissue of Easy Living, are Wright's blues "Rude Old Man" and Desmond's "Blues for Fun," evidence of Desmond's and Hall's ability to find limitless possibilities in the good old basic, unadorned blues.

Percy Heath described the quartet dates with Desmond, Hall and Kay as, "All fun. Paul was a beautiful player. He was one of the guys who was not affected by the Bird mania. He had his own thing going. He was a gentle soul, and his music reflected the beauty of Paul Desmond. We met occasionally and had a taste. He used to call me "Heathcliff," and I had a nickname for him, "Monsieur Dangereuse" because Paul was so quiet and he'd always have some very elegant ladies, so I called him dangerous, in that sense."

The RCA albums constitute a collective highlight in Desmond's discography. The quartet set the pattern for the group he would form following the dissolution of the Brubeck group and Paul's intermittent retirement. The Desmond-Hall albums did not dramatically increase the RCA bottom line in the sixties, but the company and its successor, BMG, have repackaged and reissued them in a steady stream over the past four decades. They have become staples in the basic library of jazz recordings, influential among musicians and beloved of a wide range of listeners.

Learn more about Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond.

© 2005, Doug Ramsey

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