Paul Desmond On Alto Sax — The ‘Anti-Bird’?

I want to start with the assurance that I’m not criticizing Charlie Parker, or ‘Bird’ as he’s known to his many fans — including Clint Eastwood, who made a very good movie about him. Nor am I trying to damn him with faint praise when I say that I like most – but not all – of his music. But there are some interesting comparisons to be drawn between Parker and Paul Desmond, a saxman I began to admire about 45 years ago when I first encountered the music of the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

For many years Parker was probably the best known and most admired alto sax player in the world of jazz, and his influence on young musicians was profound. Desmond considered Parker a friend and admired him a lot, but was determined not to emulate him as so many others did.

He wanted to forge his own style, and he proceeded to do just that.He had first learned to play on a clarinet before migrating to alto sax and that might have helped form his approach to playing, which leaned into the upper register and was clear, pure and lyrical. (The resulting sound appealed enormously to me, maybe because I too was a former clarinet player — although in my case I was awful, and moved on to football.)

When Desmond met up with Dave Brubeck in the late forties, they discovered a musical affinity that eventually led to the formation of the quartet. It struggled for a while but eventually became a huge hit with their breakout tune “Take Five”, composed by Desmond. (A heavy smoker, he teased that the name derived from the fact that he wrote into it a long drum solo to allow himself a smoke break.)

Intelligent, sophisticated, and witty, he was a talented writer but chose instead to devote most of his attention to composing and playing music, and after a brief marriage he spent the rest of his life being pursued by the ladies, who found him irresistible. He died in 1977 from – not surprisingly – lung cancer.

Although Desmond was best known for his work with the quartet, he had a number of albums that he made apart from the group. Sometimes he’d team up with other instrumentalists – Gerry Mulligan for one – and other times he’d be backed up by ensembles of varying size. (Interestingly, most of the time his groups were piano-less, almost as if he was trying to prove that he could do just fine without Brubeck on piano.) Our samples are from one of those albums, Late Lament on the Bluebird label.

The first tune is one of Desmond’s own, “Desmond Blue” and that’s followed by an old standard, but with the Desmond twist,”I’ve Got You Under My Skin”.

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