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:

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