Few jazz albums are as delicate and as clever as those recorded by the Paul Desmond Quartet featuring guitarist Jim Hall. Unfairly belittled and often maligned as "dinner music," the five albums Desmond and Hall made between 1959 and 1964 are deceptively ingenious. For those in the know, they remain flawless jazz recordings. Every tune these musicians touched became perfect executions laced with soul-touching ideas and playful interchanges.
To probe the backstory of these sessions, I called Doug Ramsey. In addition to writing Rifftides, the web's most authoritative and popular jazz blog, Doug is a fabulous jazz critic and novelist (Poodie James is his most recent work). Doug also is author of the most definitive Paul Desmond biography: Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond. This coffee-table size book is as beautiful to thumb through as it is to read. Every jazz artist should be so lucky to have such a literary and photographic tribute. (By the way, Doug's photo above was taken by the great William Claxton.)
In Part 1 of my interview with Doug on the Desmond-Hall collaboration, he talks about their first album, why Paul used a guitarist and not a pianist, why Dave Brubeck's Time Out recorded months earlier was not released for almost two years, and the differences between Paul's playing with Brubeck and Jim Hall:
JazzWax: Who came up with the idea to pair Paul Desmond and Jim Hall?
Doug Ramsey: My guess is that it was Paul's idea, though it could have been George Avakian's. George had produced the Dave Brubeck Quartet's albums at Columbia and left to join Warner Bros. to develop the pop album side. When Paul told him in 1959 that he wanted to record on his own again, George helped him put a session together. Paul brought in Jim Hall, who was a significant guitarist on the jazz scene in New York.
The first album, First Place Again, was such a hit that George produced the Quartet's next four albums between 1961 and 1964 after he moved to RCA.
Paul had not recorded with Jim or bassist Percy Heath or drummer Connie Kay prior to First Place Again—a title Paul hated, by the way. Jim was more familiar with Percy and Connie, having recorded with them and the rest of the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1957. But Paul knew Jim's playing well and admired it a great deal. He also was very fond of Percy and Connie.
Jim, of course, had been familiar with Paul's work for a long time. He was in the audience when the Dave Brubeck Quartet played the famous concert at Oberlin College in 1953. He drove there from Cleveland, where he was studying at the Institute of Music. That was two years before he went to Los Angeles and eventually joined Chico Hamilton. In some ways, I think First Place Again was the best of the group's five albums. There's a real sense of discovery of one another's playing.
JW: Paul Desmond had a lot going on in his life when First Place Again was recorded in 1959, didn't he?
DR: When the album was recorded in September 1959, Paul had made Time Out with Brubeck a few months earlier in July. That album, of course, went on to become one of the most popular jazz records ever recorded.
But Time Out—with Take Five, Strange Meadowlark and Blue Rondo a la Turk—hadn't been released yet and wouldn't be until early 1961. That was because the executives at Columbia hated the idea of an album of originals with strange time signatures. They were convinced it wouldn't sell and wanted another collection of standards. So they held up the release. When the album finally came out, Take Five quickly became the first million-selling jazz single.
So Paul was at the top of his game in September 1959—even though what would become his best-known album wasn't out yet. Keep in mind, by the fall of 1959, the Brubeck Quartet had already achieved huge success and was touring almost nonstop. Paul was enormously busy on the road. First Place Again was something he squeezed in on the side.
JW: Why did Desmond want to record separately from the Dave Brubeck Quartet? Was he dissatisfied?
DR: Recording as a leader was not new to Paul. From the beginning of the Brubeck Quartet in 1951, he established a reputation as a soloist and began winning polls. It wasn't a matter of dissatisfaction with the Brubeck group. It was supply and demand. There was a demand for him. Fantasy Records answered it first by recording him under his own name in 1954. He had an agreement with Brubeck that, to avoid consumer confusion with the Brubeck quartet, he wouldn't use pianists on his own records. Guitar was a logical substitute.
JW: Was Desmond's playing with Jim Hall different from his work with Dave Brubeck?
DR: As both of them often pointed out, from the beginning, Dave and Paul had uncanny empathy. They expressed it, in part, through their unique approaches to counterpoint. The differences between Brubeck and Hall lie in their musical personalities. Dave has a lot of thrust, a lot of emotion, in his soloing. And yet, in his accompaniments and in counterpoint, he could lean back and lighten up for an intimate kind of interchange. By contrast, there were certain differences in Paul's playing with Jim Hall, naturally, because Jim's approach was consistently lighter and lacier, although he could swing hard.
The combination resulted in a more delicate sort of interaction. Some of that difference lies in the natures of the guitar and the piano, some in the individual personalities. By the way, I agree with what [Desmond's childhood friend] Hal Strack told me for the Desmond biography—that Paul's sound was hugely influenced by Lester Young and Artie Shaw. There's a soulfulness and purity to Paul's playing that was unlike anyone else's approach to the alto saxophone.
JW: Desmond's exchanges with Hall sound just as intense as with Brubeck—but different. True?
DR: Paul and Jim were close friends, and Paul often talked about how much he enjoyed playing with Jim and the rapport they achieved together. He also mentioned how different that musical relationship was from playing with Dave, who was, in a profound sense, Paul's best friend for decades.
Paul conducted different types of musical conversations with Dave and Jim. I don't buy the notion that Dave simply provided a dense platform on which Paul was able to play. For years there was an orthodoxy of belief among jazz musicians that without Paul, the Dave Brubeck Quartet would have been just another group. I've never bought that. There was a close musical and personal relationship between Paul and Dave. One wouldn't have made it big without the other.
Dave and Paul's musical conversations were simply different from those with Jim. Let me see if I can express it this way: With Dave, the conversations went like this: "Oh, you can do that? Well, try this, then we can do it together." With Jim, the dialogue was more, "Oh I see what you're saying. Interesting. Let me add this and see what you can come back with."
Tomorrow, Doug and I chat about the Paul Desmond Quartet's five albums, why so many bass players were used on the different sessions, the prank Paul pulled on producer George Avakian, and Doug's five favorite tracks.
JazzWax video clip: While I could not find a video clip on the Paul Desmond Quartet featuring Jim Hall, here's Desmond playing Take Five with the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1961.