Paul Desmond: 35 Years

Every May 30 of the nearly seven-year history of this web log I have posted an observance of the passing of Paul Desmond. As the staff and I were puzzling over a new approach on this 35th anniversary of his death, Rifftides reader Svetlana Ilicheva wrote from Moscow with her translation of part of a Russian jazz musician and columnist’s appreciation of Desmond.

Paul Desmond is well-remembered and highly valued here in Russia by genuine jazz lovers. On the Russian portal Джаз.ру (, trumpeter Alexander Fischer (pictured) in an essay titled “Melodies That Narrate” writes, among other things, about Desmond’s solo on “Tangerine” with the Dave Brubeck Quartet in Copenhagen in 1957.

“…Just Listen how Paul Desmond is doing that on his alto saxophone. You can hardly find in his solo empty notes or passages, gratuitous display of technique or special effects. It seems to me that his musical statement reflects human thought in all its diversity, versatility, flexibility, logic and the presence of nooks, ‘dark’ and ‘light’ places…”

If you know Russian, you can read Mr. Fischer’s complete column here. If you happen to have Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond at hand, you can read along with the “Tangerine” solo on pages 194-199. Pianist Bill Mays and his friend Arne DeKeijzer have transcribed all 13 choruses. In his commentary, Bill writes, “Sequential melodic development is something all improvisers employ in solos—Paul uses it beautifully and liberally throughout.”

At the risk of being obvious, allow me to encourage special attention at 4:30 to an expression of the blues heart that beats just beneath the surface of so much of Desmond’s playing.

Thinking of Desmond at this time of year, I remember what Dave Brubeck told me long ago as his family was gathering at his house for the annual Memorial Day observance of which Paul had so often been a part:

“Boy,” he said, “I sure miss Paul Desmond.”

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  1. Dr. Mike Baughan says

    As Brubeck said, we ALL miss Paul Desmond-a rare & gifted talent. Hope any seeing this will scroll up & listen to Tangerine for 10 minutes. Ironically my personal fave of his. Thanks once again, Doug.

  2. says

    I see what you mean, Doug, about what happens around 4 minutes in.
    But it’s all beautiful.
    Gene Wright is a very beautiful bassist.


  3. David says

    So much lurks below the seemingly placid surface of Desmond’s playing. Starting at 4:00 there is some interesting cross-meter phrasing leading to the fragmentation at 4:15, then the squawks at 4:22 that sound like he is anticipating the avant-garde saxes of the ’60s, and finally culminating in that blues phrase.

  4. says

    “Time Out” — “Giant Steps” — “Kind Of Blue” … all from 1959 … all directing towards —> FREEDOM

    But not “freedom of“, rather “freedom to” play in the (jazz) style you are feeling most comfortable.

    Paul Desmond, “Diamond”, he was pure melody. — He was truly free. Though I have never met him, I miss him; I miss his clear, and incorruptible, honest voice. He *sang* on the sax like no one else did. — “Dial ‘D’ For Desmond” would have been a fitting title too. — But let’s not forget his sense of time & rhythm. Or do you know anyone who could play the blues on “Blue Rondo À La Turk” like he did?

    That’s one of the reasons why this tune hasn’t become a standard. — It’s so closely connected to Paul Desmond.

    • says

      I forgot to mention the other stellar album, recorded also in 1959: Something Else. It would belong to the very same category, as does the fifth of those groundbreaking 1959 sessions, Bill Evans’ famous trio album, which also started to question rhythmic, harmonic & melodic “rules” of “proper” jazz improvisations: Portrait In Jazz.

  5. says

    For me, the most interesting part is from about 8:50 to 9:30 where Desmond plays almost alone. One can hear so well how much nuance he brings to his articulation and how perfectly he varies his tone and sound even in fast passages. Every note counts. There is not a second that isn’t musically meaningful.

    And I like Brubeck’s harmonic explorations which move completely outside the usual jazz clichés. My favorite jazz era was the late 50s and early 60s when people like Kenton, Brubeck, and Desmond were so completely expanding the art form’s musical resources. A great embodiment of this era was Steve Allen’s Jazz Scene USA which was on network television in 1962. Jazz seems to have been marginalized exactly when it was reaching its greatest heights. I wonder why.

  6. Jim Brown says

    Desmond is one of those few musicians whose work I can listen to over and over and over again (Bill Evans is another) — a CD can live in the CD player for weeks at a time and there’s so much going on I never tire of it. Lately I’ve been savoring the recently released “last concert” from Pittsburgh, in 1969. I’m especially enjoying both Paul’s and Dave’s playing, especially on the ballads.

    Yeah, I really miss Paul too.

  7. KENNY HARRIS says

    He is surely missed – thankfully we have Paul’s recordings and videos.

  8. Joe Gawel says

    I don’t know about anybody else, but to me that (and everything Desmond played) sounds as fresh and inventive as it did then, when I was just starting to listen to jazz.

  9. John K says

    That was the best 10 minutes I’ve spent all week and it has now prompted a torrent of Desmond listening. I’ve just arrived at my well worn copy of Glad to Be Unhappy with Jim Hall. This is wonderful timeless music.

  10. C. Anthony Burrell, II says

    I thought that I had Tangerine downloaded to my PC among the many Brubeck CD’s that I have in my collection, but for some reason I don’t. So I went back to one of my favorites from the time it first came out that I do have on my PC – the Carnegie Hall 1963 concert and listened several of my favorite Desmond solos from that gem – “For All We Know”, “Southern Scene” and “Three To Get Ready”, where Desmond swings effortlessly through the alternating 3/4 and 4/4 time shifts and makes it seem as just as easy to construct such a lyrical solo as it would have been in either 3/4 or 4/4. (Must be Brubeck saying “yeah” at 2:59 and 3:18 behind Desmond’s solo). Desmond’s solo on “Southern Scene” is my favorite of the concert, but they are all good. “Eleven-Four” is another good example of how he could transcend “odd” time signatures with lyrical grace. Then there is his blues playing on “Blue Rondo” just over Gene Wright and Morello…………………..

    So now, I am going to have to find my CD copy of “Tangerine” and download it to my PC, so I can listen to it repeatedly and add it to my favorites list. I purchased the vinyl way back in my teens and wore it out, but I can still remember a lot of Desmond’s solo on it, especially the stop-time choruses. WOW!

    Thanks for posting this Doug

  11. Peter Bergmann says

    Paul was and is one of a kind. Incomparable.
    His music has accompanied me since decades and will accompany me for the time left.

  12. says

    Paul Desmond was and still is for me an example of a musician creating music right at this moment, without the use of patterns, models, and blanks. In his improvisations, each idea has its own development and is not wasted. As a musician and alto saxophonist, I hope to be his follower.

    PS: I am also from Russia.

  13. Frank Roellinger says

    I can’t add anything to these comments in terms of Desmond’s genius; they are all excellent descriptions.

    I talked to Paul twice, the second time interrupting his solitude at the intermission of a music tent concert near Boston in 1965. He was very polite and really made me feel like an old friend. I requested “For All We Know” and the group played that as their first tune of the second half of the concert.

    As Bill Evans said of Scott LaFaro in 1966, “As far as I’m concerned, he’s alive… he’s not here at this moment, that’s all, but I can’t comprehend death.” I can’t either. My feelings now are exactly as they were 35 years ago.