Writings about Music

Deciphering Desmond

Thanks for this fantastic video and the song, Audrey, which I’ve never seen or heard before! Funny, I just watched Roman Holiday for the first time, which was her film debut.

Listening to Desmond, I noticed more than ever before the enormous influence of Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman on all the dimensions of music, including timbre, phrasing, articulation, dynamics, shape, expression, and what Aaron Copland termed the long line. One secret of Desmond's style is how he plays the alto saxophone as if it were a clarinet more than anyone else.

I once heard a Desmond improvisation slowed to half-speed, and was startled at how close his sound was to Stan Getz. That experience was a precursor to my current belief that Getz is ultimately the pre-eminent musical influence upon Paul Desmond, expanding upon the above-mentioned foundational orientation derived from Shaw and Goodman. Desmond did excise the earthier Jack Teagarden elements from Getz's style, of course, but his approach to playing saxophone is definitely modeled after early Stan Getz, with a touch of early Lee Konitz. Desmond followed -- in his own individualistic manner -- Getz's general musical direction of focusing on luxuriously gorgeous, unabashedly seductive melodic and textural improvisations delivered with a romantically breathy tone that amounts to nothing less than a new incarnation of modern jazz, projecting a potent Shringara Rasa that resonates stronger and stronger with the passage of time. The influence of early Lee Konitz is more significant here in terms of sheer compositional content, with Paul's extemporizations soaring in-between the extreme abstractions of Lee and the "closer to swing" flights of Stan. Thus, to sum-up my analysis of Paul Desmond, he played the alto saxophone like a clarinet disciple of Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman enchanted by tenor saxophonist Stan Getz and schooled by alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, leading to his unique, highly personal musical universe.

Lester Young has more commonly been mentioned as influencing Desmond, but that influence was once removed, filtered through Stan Getz's unique absorption of Young's music. Its not uncommon for musicians and composers to attempt to mask the true source of their inspiration, incorrectly feeling that giving credit to others somehow diminishes themselves.

Convinced that Paul’s magic was related to his chosen mouthpiece and reed, one musician queried him, learning that Desmond had simply used the set-up that happened to come with the alto he purchased. This reminds me of a story I read online about the time Stan Getz walked into the East Village jazz club, Slug's, where Jackie McLean was holding court. Jackie offered Stan his alto, and Getz proceeded to mesmerize everyone with an incendiary set even though he rarely played alto, let alone Jackie's reed and mouthpiece!

My absolute favorite recording by Desmond is Jazz Impressions of Eurasia with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, including modal jazz that predates the Kind of Blue album. Very likely, the participants on that more famous album heard the innovative Dave Brubeck Quartet recording, also featuring Joe Morello and Joe Benjamin. It's puzzling why jazz artists of the time never seem to have played the opening cut of Jazz Impressions of Eurasia, Nomad, which is a brilliant tune. Same goes for The Golden Horn, which together with Calcutta Blues demonstrates what treasure may be found in the essentially modal forms of Eurasia, the Middle East, India, and elsewhere; a notion John Coltrane took to heart. Samba With Some Barbeque on his Summertime album, and the title track on Jim Hall's Concierto album are some other sublime Paul Desmond recordings. The latter also contains one of Chet Baker's finest efforts.

Hearing Audrey has me ruminating over other momentous recordings of minor key blues, including Equinox by John Coltrane from the Coltranes’s Sound album, and Herbie Mann’s interpretation of Comin’ Home Baby from the At the Village Gate album, with Equinox also being my absolute favorite Coltrane utterance. I have no doubt that Trane admired Desmond’s music; an admittedly subtle awareness felt and heard mostly in reflectively infinitesimal pauses between tones played by the tenor saxophonist.

My father once took a high school friend and myself to the Half Note in midtown Manhattan to see Paul Desmond, Jim Hall, Ron Carter and Connie Kay. We sat at a front table just a few feet from the musicians, and everything they played sounded incredibly perfect and sophisticated, as if their art was about using as little physical movement and effort possible in order to focus on the complex crosscurrents flowing through the music itself. I also recall how Desmond and his colleagues never seemed to smile, as if they were sketching blueprints for a new building as a communal performance. Looking back, it would have been fun to hear them play Impressions by John Coltrane at full speed, taking them out of their comfort zone. I don't recall any of the specific tunes they actually played, but the general feeling was rather subdued. The previously mentioned tune, The Golden Horn, is remarkably similar to Impressions in both tempo and rasa, and I have no doubt the musicians would have excelled performing the Coltrane composition.

- Michael Robinson, May & September 2015, Los Angeles


© 2015 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, jazz pianist, and musicologist. His 162 albums include 149 albums for meruvina and 13 albums of piano improvisations. He has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University.