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Paul Desmond

Paul Desmond (November 25, 1924 - May 30, 1977)

When Paul Desmond died I sat in a dull black, wrought-iron chair in the middle of my back yard and cried. I still remember the loss and emptiness that I felt then.

I knew only press-release information of the man but the loss left my senses stunned. The loss of a personal friend could not have hurt more. It was the music, or more accurately his version of music, that I lamented really. There are few artists whose work can stimulate my senses and make emotions swell; Degas, Keillor, Goodman.

Paul Desmond was the best. And then he was gone.

Most people will agree, his style on his instrument the alto saxophone, was unique. To me at least, his abilities were without parallel. His breathless tone and ever-present inventiveness filtered into me and always left me with satisfied warmth, a musical experience.

Now, 30 years later I can sit and listen to an album, “Jazz Goes to College” or “Paul Desmond Quartet Live” or any of the really scant few recordings that caught him, and get misty, euphoric or just amazed. In just the first few bars I always say, or at least think, “He was so unique.”

This was a jazz musician with a specific quality that has always appealed to me. He seldom left the melody of the song far behind. Some in jazz play only light tribute to the song and then present choruses of brilliant originality that bear little or no kinship to the composed music. I enjoy those too.

But my real preference has always been in improvised treatments that honor the composers, embellishing and bending, enhancing and stylizing, but always remaining a only few notes away from the familiar song.

I suppose the squealing, squawking and honking artists have a place too and I can appreciate them occasionally for their effort and originality. Charlie Parker, who sometimes never touched the original tune while he played, is another of my favorites. I like all kinds of music as long as it really is music.

I must inject here that poorly rhymed couplets of rude words droned to a tacky but loud percussive accompaniment, is quite simply, not music.

You might have gathered by now that I am an old (literally) jazz fan. I have listened to music all my life. Really listened.

My wife and I set aside a piece of each day just for music. We have a large library of recordings but often we just listen to a good radio broadcast. Many evenings we listen to replays of BBC jazz or big band programs on the computer while preparing our evening meal. As the selections are played my wife delights in my mystical ability to name most of the selections or artists or both. Sometimes I even have an anecdote about the recording or the song or the version. If you have listened to this music for more than 60 years, as I have, that’s easy to do.

One night this week, the wistful melody of “Nancy with the Laughing Face” came from the speakers. The delicate, breathless alto saxophone told me it was Paul Desmond and probably Ed Bickert or Jim Hall on guitar. I had to sit down. It was not the familiar recording that I knew. For a moment my excitement swelled as I imagined I was hearing a different version of a familiar recording. Had some unreleased tapes been found?

My wife peeked at the play-list on the BBC site to make note of the recording information so I could add it to my library.

It wasn’t Paul Desmond.

At first I figured it was a mistake. They had entered the wrong artist in the play list. But there it was, “Nancy with the Laughing Face” with the Allison Neale Quartet.

Now here was a moment with mixed emotions. There is someone who sounds so much like Paul Desmond that it fooled me completely? How embarrassing! There is someone who sounds so much like Paul Desmond that it satisfied me completely? How wonderful!

Later on, I listened to four additional selections held on her web site. She does indeed sound consistently like Paul Desmond, but not exactly. There’s a bit of Art Pepper there too.

But most of all it is also uniquely Alison Neale. The real element that I recognized was that her playing gave me the same feeling I got listening to Paul Desmond. Whether she emulated Desmond or not, I got that feeling. That’s important to me.

I once had a discussion with an elderly jazz musician in which we concluded that jazz always comes from someplace else. It is the accumulation of experience, a piece of this, a shred of that. A jazz musician hears, interprets, revises, replays, reforms, reshapes and restates. It is the musician’s volume of experience that produces the art. (What’s that old saw: You have to suffer to be a poet…)

Paul Desmond’s sound is still unique in music. My lament was that the beautiful, emotional experience that it gave me would be confined to the handful of recordings that he left. Now I know it is not. Thanks to youngsters like Allison Neale, that feeling lives. Thanks.

Paul Desmond solo on Emily

Brubeck Quartet doing their Blues number...sometimes called Audry Take Five in early concert Take Five in later concert It's a Raggedy Waltz Emily

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