Paul Desmond recorded five albums with Jim Hall in a quartet setting. The first was made in September 1959—two months after Desmond recorded Time Out with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. At the time, Desmond wanted to record as a leader, and he chose a guitar for his quartet (Hall) instead of a piano to honor a promise he had made to Brubeck years earlier.
One can't help but wonder, of course, whether Desmond and producer George Avakian also had the Hal McKusick Quartet (1955 and 1956) and Lee Konitz Quartet (1957) in mind when the guitar decision was made. Alto saxophonists McKusick and Konitz both had similarly seductive horn sounds and used identical configurations in their earlier groups—Barry Galbraith on guitar with McKusick, and Billy Bauer on guitar with Konitz. Interesting to ponder.
But back to the subject at hand. In Part 2 of my interview with Doug Ramsey, the esteemed jazz critic, blogger, novelist and Paul Desmond biographer reflects on the group's five albums [that's Doug and his wife with Desmond in 1973]. Doug also talks about why so many bass players were used on the dates, the prank Desmond pulled on producer George Avakian, and his five favorite quartet tracks:
JazzWax: What was going on in Paul’s life when he recorded his first album with Jim?
Doug Ramsey: Between the time Take Five was recorded with Dave in July 1959 and the first Quartet album with Jim in September, Paul had a busy life. He had just moved to New York and was enjoying the city a great deal. He had a terrific apartment at 55th and 6th. It was a short walk from the best museums and restaurants and all the things Manhattan had to offer.
He also was doing quite a bit of dating. In pictures, Paul may look nerdy to some, but he was an incredible charmer. Part of his success with some of the most attractive women of the day was that he treated them as equals. He listened to them. He was curious about them. And he was unfailingly polite and considerate. That was a magic formula that many men during that period hadn’t yet discovered. Come to think of it, many men today still haven’t discovered it.
JW: Why do so many people dismiss the Desmond Quartet sessions as too light?
DR: I think it’s obvious that the playing on their five albums sounds relaxed and laid back. But what’s often overlooked is the high level of musicianship taking place on those so-called laid-back sessions. Many people tend to think of the recordings as “easy listening” albums compared to what else was being played and recorded between 1959 and 1964.
But jazz musicians and careful listeners view them differently. They hear the high level of skill and knowledge on those tracks—and the gifts required to pull off that kind of playing. Listen carefully to the blues pieces Paul and Jim play, like Eugene Wright’s Rude Old Man on the Easy Living album. You hear two master blues players.
In truth, Paul was a genius player of the blues. Just listen to his solo on Audrey from Brubeck Time. No one has ever played a blues solo remotely like that. Maybe Bix Beiderbecke, but not on a record that I’ve heard. It’s just brilliantly inventive and individual blues playing.
JW: Do you have a favorite Paul Desmond Quartet album?
DR: While I favor First Place Again, I think of the albums recorded by the group as a consistent body of work rather than five separate albums. It was four guys getting together and having a good time and playing tunes. It just happened that these guys were playing at the highest possible musical level. They certainly weren’t concept albums, although RCA tried to package them as if they were. But that can be forgiven because they used such gorgeous women on some of the covers. Desmond made it a project to get to know those models. And he did.
JW: There were quite a few bass player switches on the different albums—Percy Heath, Eugene Wright, Gene Cherico, George Duvivier and Milt Hinton. Why?
DR: That’s life in the big city in the music business. Players had commitments and conflicts. It wasn’t as if Paul had to settle. All of those bass players were top flight. Bassist Gene Wright told me how pleased he was that Paul had asked him to be on the Take Ten date. Gene [pictured on the right] said, "I didn’t feel I was in the direction he and Jim Hall were going, but we did it, and it was a ball.” I asked Percy Heath about those quartet dates. He said they were “all fun. Paul was a beautiful player.”
JW: On all five albums, it’s clear that Desmond and Hall were very much in synch.
DR: They were. The interaction between them was very subtle, funny and unique. I can’t think of two other players who tossed it back and forth the way they did on those albums. Listen for the muscle and swing and power of their playing. Listen for the lyricism and inventiveness. These two guys were powerhouse players—not in the Gene Ammons-Sonny Stitt, tough-tenor sense. Rather, they had a solid swing feeling in every tune they played, except for the slowest ballads, of course.
Paul and Jim are overlooked in that regard. Also, remember that many of these tracks were captured on the first take. In some cases, there were several takes of tunes. But I’ve heard most of those alternate takes on the studio tapes and, except for a couple of tracks, it’s really not clear which was the better take, the released one or the alternates.
JW: On each of these albums, Paul sounds very deeply involved with melody and counterpoint.
DR: Very much so, and he disliked distractions. Or more accurately, he didn’t want the other people involved to be distracted. On one of the sessions, Paul was bugged because when he looked up occasionally into the control room while he was playing, he saw producer George Avakian on the phone. So during a playback, Paul told the other guys to go into the booth and wait. He went out into the hall to a pay phone, called the booth and said, “George, it’s me, Desmond. How was that last take?”
When I was researching the biography, George gave me a perfectly plausible explanation for having been on the telephone. But it was too late; Paul dined out on that story for years.
JW: What are your favorite tracks from these five albums?
DR: Wow, that’s a tough one. Each tune has its own personality. But if I were recalling pieces off the top of my head, I’d say...
- For All We Know, from First Place Again (1959).
- The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else, from Take Ten (1963). There’s something endearing about that one.
- Rude Old Man, from Easy Living (1963).
- All Across The City, from Glad to Be Unhappy (1963)
- The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, the first take, from Bossa Antigua (1964).
Ask me again tomorrow and I’ll probably name five others altogether.
JW: Were Paul and Jim happy to reunite on Concierto?
DR: Jim and Jane Hall were among Paul’s most intimate friends. They spent a lot of time together throughout his two decades or so in New York. So, even though Paul and Jim hadn’t recorded a quartet album for years, my guess is that Paul and Jim were always glad to play together and thought of that occasion as a continuation more than a reunion. Everybody played beautifully on that date—Paul, Jim and Chet Baker. And what a rhythm section: Roland Hanna, Ron Carter and Steve Gadd.
JazzWax tracks: As Doug Ramsey pointed out at Rifftides yesterday, it's getting harder and harder to find the box set of these albums. You can still buy the albums separately. If you want an introduction, download The Best of the Complete RCA Recordings at iTunes. Or just download Bossa Antigua, which for me is their best work together.
You may also find it a kick to to compare two other alto-guitar-bass-drums quartets that preceded Desmond's. Listen to Hal McKusick's East Coast Jazz (1955), Jazz Workshop (1956) and Jazz at the Academy (1956), and Lee Konitz's Tranquility (1957). The sound and sensitivity were already in place.
JazzWax video clip: To hear what all the fuss was about over Paul Desmond, dig this clip of These Foolish Things. It features the Dave Brubeck Quartet performing at the University of Rome in October 1959—just a month after Desmond's first recording with Jim Hall and three months after Time Out. Listen to Paul powder this standard—with beautiful line after beutiful line. It's so pretty it's heart-breaking.
And listen as pianist Dave Brubeck tries to out-delicate Paul, perfectly illustrating Doug's points today and yesterday about their musical conversations. Fabulous!
For fast future listening/viewing, simply go to the "Videos" section in the right-hand margin and click on Paul Desmond's name.