The Jazzcord Guide to Paul Desmond
Legendary alto saxophonist Paul Desmond was, by all accounts, a man like no other, and this unique personality translated very well into his musicianship. His sparse, melodic, and minimalist approach to improvisation acted as a direct contrast to the maximalism found in other improvisers of his time, with a particular focus being put on taking a singular idea, no matter how simple, and making into a statement with a complexity seldom found elsewhere.
Said minimalist attitude towards improvisation was not always apparent, with the original inspiration for Desmonds’ style being found in the same place that all inspiration was taken from in this era: Charlie Parker. Whilst Desmond’s trademark bright, almost flute-like sound remained relatively consistent through his career, his improvisational style began as something of a Bird imitation, characterized as consistently rapid eighth note lines, demonstrated in the Brubeck recording Jazz At Oberlin.
Even within these recordings which seriously contradict a substantial amount of Desmond’s body of work, you can hear the improvisational strategies that set him apart from the rest of the improvisers of his ilk. Heavy use of motivic development throughout the above solo shows that whilst the language Desmond employed was vastly different from what he would play in the future, the way in which he approached the two languages remained largely consistent. Another interesting differentiation that this recording provides from the rest of Desmond’s discography is a relatively fierce/potent application of altissimo, a stylistic choice which he would consciously discontinue for the rest of his career.
The most recognizable portion of Desmond’s career, to both the majority of both the jazz world and the popular music world, is his work with the Dave Brubeck quartet, which peaked in fame following his composition Take Five. To this day it remains the best selling jazz single of all time, and marks a distinct change in Desmond’s improvisational style. By the wayside went the extended eighth note bebop lines ripped directly from Bird, and from them came a new minimalistic style of improvisation, lacking any perceived angularity or dissonance . Desmond’s playing was a constant genesis of new ideas, with Brubeck saying “the strength of Paul, that I want everyone to remember, is this inventive, logical, lyrical, wonderful compositional technique that was in his solos. Absolutely fresh, night after night.".
This wholly spontaneous style of improvisation allowed Desmond to, in my opinion, become one of the most original improvisers in the history of jazz.
But Desmond’s time playing with the Dave Brubeck Quartet was always bound to end. The pair, as great friends and partners often do, “broke up” for an extended period of time, allowing Desmond to pursue a solo career as a band leader. As we transition to Desmond’s entrance into the spotlight, it’s important to address some of the difficulties that Desmond faced throughout his life. A massive smoker and alcoholic, Desmond’s life was cut short by lung cancer. Upon learning that his kidneys and liver remained entirely healthy, he remarked “Pristine, perfect. One of the great livers of our time. Awash in Dewars and full of health.”.
A particularly impactful phase I remember as a young improviser was when Desmond acted as my main inspiration for continuing to study jazz. When I was in eighth grade, I vividly remember playing a chart in a big band over the standard When Sunny Gets Blue, and whilst looking for the recording of the particular arrangement that we were playing I discovered Desmond’s recording Live In Canada, 1975. This was my first taste of Desmond, my first transcription by ear,
and still it remains my favorite recording of his throughout his entire discography.
The older Desmond got, the fewer notes he played. Consistently. This particular recording of Desmond’s playing (Live in Canada) remains, I think, the purest example of what Desmond wanted to sound like whilst improvising. A pure and unfiltered expression of melodic ideas, with a rhythm section whose sole aim was to make this stream of thought as fluent and smooth as possible. Desmond’s solos on Live in Canada, and When Sunny Gets Blue in particular, teaches a lesson which I think all improvisers can find some wisdom in: it isn’t the amount of notes you play nor the velocity at which they are played, rather it’s the thoughts and ideas that go into those notes.
Desmond’s effect on jazz is often understated due to his position in jazz history, being a pioneer of a subgenre which is often discounted within the jazz community, even though his impact on how the alto saxophone is conventionally played is painfully apparent in an abundance of musicians today. Even musicians such as the legendary Anthony Braxton, who’s playing style might initially appear to be as far removed from Desmond’s as possible, cite Desmond as their first major influence. Desmond’s subtlety, melodicism, and minimalism helped set the standard for the modern alto saxophone player, defined cool jazz saxophone, and offered inspiration to some of the greatest players thereafter. His influence on this music can’t be overemphasized, placing him firmly in the pantheon of the all time great saxophone players in this wonderful musical art form.
Article Editor: Alfie Coates