Thursday, February 7, 2008

Brubeck and Desmond

A while back I acquired a CD of Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, which was probably the first jazz record I ever owned. I’m not sure if I still have the vinyl, but CDs are easier to rip anyway. I put it on the Shuffle and let the gods of random chance do their thing.

The first cut to come up in the mix was “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” In Ken Burns’ “Jazz,” Brubeck recounts how he stole a good portion of it from Turkish street musicians when he was on tour while in the Army, thus making it one of the first examples of my exposure to World Music. It’s in 9/8 time. The liner notes for Time Out was the first place I ever saw the phrase “time signature.” I suspect it was like that for a lot of young boomers such as myself, and I’ve occasionally wondered how many of the out-of-the-ordinary time signatures in rock (I’m thinking of you, Fairport Convention) have a root or two in Brubeck.

A while later in the randomness came “Take Five,” one of the most famous melodies in all of jazz. I’m not sure how long it’s been since I’d heard the original, especially in true “high fidelity,” i.e. through headphones, with a minimum of background noise. And as gooseflesh sprouted on my arms, I wondered, did I just forget, or had I never really noticed before?

Gloria Steinem once famously quoted Paul Desmond as saying that he “wanted to sound like a dry martini.” That self-deprecating witticism masked an amazing achievement. Paul Desmond gave his alto saxophone a tone unlike anything else played by anyone else. He made the alto saxophone sound like a flute, breathy, clear, and smooth.

The saxophone is a naturally raucous instrument; it fits into rock and roll as easily as bebop. It doesn’t do mellow easily. Yet Desmond made it so. You might be able to find some early to middle Coltrane with that kind of fluidity (then later he turned against that early “cooler” style), but that’s almost the whole list. Gerry Mulligan was in the same country with the baritone sax, but I just can’t come up with a memory of anyone who sounded like Desmond on the saxophone. I will say that I've recently encountered a tone similar to Desmond's, from Kenny Davern, playing with Dick Wellstone. But that was from a session in 1981, and Davern was playing the clarinet.

A friend of mine once said admiringly of Carlos Santana, “He’s achieved every musician’s dream, a sound so distinctive that his mother could recognize it coming out of a car radio.” Paul Desmond did that with the saxophone. He did it in plain sight; everyone remarked on it, even. But it was an achievement both effervescent and evanescent, slipping from memory even as the final notes are played, with the “dry martini” remark serving as a place holder to something far more magical.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet, with Brubeck on piano, Desmond on sax, and Eugene Wright and Joe Morello on bass and drums, respectively, were the most popular examples of “West Coast Jazz,” sometimes derisively called “White Boy Jazz,” owing to a paucity of black performers in it. Brubeck, though, was a fierce integrationist, bless him, first integrating his Army touring group in WWII, then sometimes canceling gigs in the 1950s, if Eugene Wright was disrespected in any way.

Brubeck made the cover of Time Magazine, in November, 1954, the second jazz figure to do so (Louis Armstrong being the first). The story goes that Time debated whether to put Brubeck or Duke Ellington on that cover, and chose Brubeck. The two men happened to both be in Denver when that issue came out, and Brubeck tells the story of having Ellington knock on his door at seven in the morning, greeting Brubeck with, “You’re on the cover of Time!” when he opened the door.

Burbeck idolized Ellington and wished that the cover had gone to Ellington. Ellington was both a showman and a realist, assuring Brubeck that either way, it benefited jazz, and what was good for jazz was good for all of them.

I’m with the Duke on this one. Time Out was the first jazz album I bought, but it wasn’t the last. Every moment contains both the past and future. And something in all this evokes my memory of sitting on a blanket on the grass lawn of the College of St. Rose in Albany, New York, listening to the Count Basie Orchestra with some friends, and thinking that life is mighty good.

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