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Paul Desmond on Alto Sax – The “Anti”-Bird?

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I want to start with the assurance 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 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 first began to admire about 45 years ago when I 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 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 it's followed by an old standard, but with the Desmond twist, "I've Got You Under My Skin".

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About Big Geez

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    For many years Parker was probably the best known and most admired alto sax player in the world of jazz

    I’d say he still is, wouldn’t you? Personally, I prefer Ornette Coleman, but Bird’s reputation is in no danger from Ornette or anybody else.

    But you’re probably 100% correct in referring to Desmond as the Anti-Bird. Konitz comes close, but he was never quite the laid-back and mellow craftsman that Desmond was.

  • http://www.chancelucky.blogspot.com chancelucky

    Nice to see Paul Desmond’s name out there again.
    I personally don’t think of either Konitz or Desmond’s styles as anti-Bird. Both show some influence, as in neither’s style would have existed without Parker. Both Konitz (though he tried many different styles) and Desmond (who never much changed) have always struck me as cooled down takes on Parker.

    To me, if you want anti-Bird on the alto, I’d look to Benny Carter who preceded Parker on the instrument and to my ear was never much affected by him. Carter went for a more rounded tone and a loping quality to his lines that contrasts pretty strongly with Parker’s edgier feel and more angular lines.

    I can’t keep track of who’s alive and who’s not anymore. I know that Jackie Maclean died fairly recently, but if I had to listen to one living alto player it would probably be Phil Woods who not only overtly imitated Parker but married his widow. No he’s not terribly adventurous, certainly not Ornette, but no alto player has caught my attention live the way Phil Woods did.

  • Big Geez

    Coleman is good, and I like Konitz too but can’t say that I hear much influence from Parker in either him or Desmond. Benny Carter is special – sounds great in everything I’ve heard, even those recordings from the very early days, with a full band or a smaller combo, and he was around for a zillion years.

    How about Cannonball Adderly?

  • Mark Saleski

    c’mon, you can hear the Bird in Desmond’s play, you just have to play “Take 5″ at two or three times regular speed! ;-)

  • http://www.chancelucky.blogspot.com chancelucky

    Cannonball Adderly when he came out of Florida, I think was dubbed “little Bird” at one time so there’s probably no discussion of whether he was influenced by Parker. Adderly made it more soulful, but you can still hear that he was one of thousands of sax players who started out transcribing Parker solos. Actually, I’m a fan of all the alto players mentioned on this thread, though Ornette Coleman is certainly the most challenging listen of the group ( I can’t hum harmolodically).

    I suppose if we’re just getting into just who we like on Alto, no one’s mentioned Art Pepper, who sort of split the difference between Parker and Desmond. Arthur Blythe who arguably picked up bits of everyone is also someone I found fun to listen to.

    Coleman and Konitz I think both readily admitted to the fact that Parker influenced the way they ultimately played, but I’d have to look it up. Coleman’s tie comes in the approach to melody. Konitz certainly picks up on Parker harmonically, though some say that’s more due to Tristano than Parker.

    I don’t know jazz or music all that well. Mostly I just listen to records and occasionally read articles about it. I would say the direct influence is harder to detect, but it’s pretty clearly there. I think there’s a difference between “not being imitative” and being influenced by.

  • kureng dapel

    i love sax

  • DaKat

    Actually, Desmond’s biggest influence was not Charlie Parker at all, but Pete Brown.

  • http://geezermusicclub.wordpress.com/ Big Geez

    Er…I don’t think my piece said he was influenced by Parker. I think I said that he admired Parker, but didn’t want to play like him. Of course, I guess you could call that a sort of negative influence.:-)

  • Nick Viola

    Desmond is obviously super great…along with others…like Zoot, Cohen, Etc Etc

    However, on sax..Stan Getz is the greatest..ever.

  • hansel

    desmond is a monster

  • Robert Gallagher

    My understanding as to why Desmond didn’t play with pianists after Brubeck is that he and Dave had an agreement that Paul would not play in a piano combo and Dave wouldn’t use a sax soloist. Their discography seems to bear this out but someone should ask Dave as we are lucky to still have him with us.

    Best wishes to all from another Desmond fan…bird fan…konitz fan…oh, hell, I just love jazz! Robert

  • bliffle

    I think Desmond recorded with George Shearing.

  • Joe Potter

    I fell in love with Paul Desmond’s sound while in high School in the late 1950’s. His solos while in the Brubech quartet were always special. To me his sound was sweet. I found Bird as a guy who played too many notes, too fast for me. I now understand Desmond’s sound since he started out on clarinet. It is almost like hearing Benny Goodman on sax. Too bad Paul was addicted to cigarettes, maybe he would still be playing if he had given them up.

  • Terry Corcoran

    You ALWAYS knew that it was Paul. His tone was as unique as Getz, and he did the industry a huge favor by making jazz attractive to a larger audience. There might have been players who were more technically advanced, but Paul had his own voice and personality. He was the hipster in the back of the room who could destroy an audience with an off-hand remark. Such is genius. Rest in Peace, Buddy…

  • Rachel

    call me racist, but i like the white ones better