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Updated: Feb 2, 2023

San Francisco native Paul Desmond forged a unique alto saxophone sound and style that can immediately be identified after one phrase by the studied jazz listener. He is one of the true innovator’s on his instrument who does not display any influence of Charlie Parker in his work. Most influential alto saxophone players that were active in the 1950’s show some trace of Bird’s style in their work, think Cannonball Adderley or Ornette Coleman. Desmond, on the other hand, while certainly a serious and literate jazz musician of the highest order, managed to forge a distinctive way of playing that follows logically from swing players like Lester Young and Benny Goodman while incorporating many elements of 20th Century classical music, in particular his mastery and use of odd time signatures. Certainly his exposure to the classical techniques found in his work are the result of his long and fruitful collaboration with pianist Dave Brubeck. The music they produced together is a fascinating subset of the jazz genre, and in addition Paul Desmond recorded plenty of music outside of The Dave Brubeck Quartet group as well, marking him as a versatile and expressive voice on the alto saxophone.

Mr. Desmond’s Wikipedia entry can be found here……..

Pianist and composer Dave Brubeck’s Wikipedia entry can be found here……

Paul Desmond is known primarily for his work with the Dave Brubeck Quartet.It is often thought that Brubeck wrote the tune that made that group famous, Take Five.The truth of the matter is Paul Desmond wrote that tune, and it made him quite wealthy.Take Five is arguably the most recognized tune in the jazz canon.The first melody and solo that I encourage young alto saxophone players to learn by ear is the Paul Desmond solo on Take Five by the original Dave Brubeck Quartet.

Check out the Wikipedia entry for Take Five; it is a bit unusual for an individual jazz tune to have its own Wikipedia entry……

1959 was a watershed year for jazz—Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps albums are just a couple of the amazing recordings released that year. Although recorded and originally released in 1959 on Brubeck’s Greatest Hits, it wasn’t until 1961 upon its rerelease that Take Five became a jukebox sensation.

The title’s play on words is typical Desmond humor; the melody is in 5/4 time, and we all know that to “Take Five” means to take a five minute break.This melody fits nicely on the alto and while the bridge takes some effort to learn, most alto students with a modest technique can absorb this melody and solo and pretty easily play along with the recording.It is also a good study of a short modal solo, since the usual method of soloing on this tune is to just vamp on the tonic E flat minor chord…..

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What isn’t so well known is that Paul Desmond played clarinet early on in his life.It was a revelation to me when I stumbled on this fact in his book (see below), and I began to understand his conception and sound on a whole different level once I learned this.The clincher was when I learned this classic Take Five solo on clarinet myself.I am continually amazed at how his upper register on the alto sounds like a clarinet, and here was a perfect example of how that unique upper register alto sound may have developed.He often said he wanted to “sound like a dry martini.”It often sounds to me like he’s imitating or hearing a clarinet in his head when he’s playing in the upper register. If you can, take the timeto play through this clarinet transcription of Take Five with the recording and see if you hear something similar.

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Paul Desmond had a very unique and interesting way with melodies.He was able to paraphrase a melody beautifully; that is he was able to distill the melody down to its essence and state it with a minimum of notes, presenting the melody in a simple and beautiful way that conveyed its meaning with less than the required usual number of composed notes.This next transcription on Here’s That Rainy Day, from Paul’s solo recording Easy Living on RCA, is a perfect example of his ability to paraphrase a melody.His subsequent solo is a study in simplicity and melodic invention, hallmarks of his style for the duration of his career.

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Paul was not often given credit for his technical prowess nor his sophisticated approach to the alto.It seems to me that his pretty melodic sound and complete command of complex rhythms often masked his technical ability.This incredible solo on the tune Sweet Georgia Brown, from the Buried Treasures Brubeck CD on Columbia, is an example of just how clever he could be and also displays his command of the higher reaches of the alto saxophone.See how effortlessly he ascends to the high G in Bar 65—many of Paul’s recorded solos include effortless alltisimo passages that seem to reflect that early clarinet influence.

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Paul was often at his best when he was playing a Brazilian Bossa Nova. I’ve always loved his recording Bossa Antigua, which features some incredible guitar work by Master jazz guitarist Jim Hall. Here is the Wikipedia entry for this RCA recording….. It can also be found on this terrific box set Paul Desmond- The Complete RCA Albums Collection

Another fantastic recording is The Paul Desmond Quartet Live, on A & M records, featuring twomore gorgeous examples of this popular sensation the Bossa Nova.

Pauls original composition Wendy shows off his gift for melody, and Wave, the Antonio Carlos Jobim Bossa standard, again demonstrates his ability to paraphrase a melody and state a melodic and inventive solo without overpowering the listener.Desmond often played standards tunes in a key other than the typical standard key, and here on Wave he moves the tune up to F major Concert in order to allow the melody to descend into a more comfortable and warmer range than the usual D concert, which takes the melody down to low B on the alto, a rather awkward note on the saxophone to land on comfortably.

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Paul Desmond was a musical chameleon—he often recorded with players outside his usual sphere of influence.While these musicians always displayed an affinity for their shared musical attributes, the results were often greater than the sum of their parts.Two Of a Mind, a universally regarded Masterpiece of an album, finds Desmond blending to perfection with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan.

His solo on All The Things You Are is a must study for all aspiring alto saxophonists…..check out how effortlessly the two of them trade the melody, and then how beautifully Paul spins out this solo……a timeless classic, be sure to commit this one to memory as soon as you are able!

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I especially like the tune 2 Degrees East, 3 Degrees West from Paul’s East Of The Sun recording from 1959.This tune is a West Coast standard of sorts, and is basically a blues in Bb concert.I won’t get into too much detail about this other than to say it’s a sublime example of what Paul was capable of, and that this version is typical of the sorts of things Paul was recording with the many guitarists he used in his quartets over years.On this tune again the great Jim Hall plays some beautiful counterpoint and a great that solo that is discussed in detail here by guitarist Steve Kahn……

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One of the most sublime recordings in the jazz canon is the duo recording Brubeck and Desmond-1975: The Duets, on A & M records.

While not as rhythmically potent as the many Brubeck Quartet recordings that plumb the depths of all manner of rhythmic challenges, this recording continually features the polytonal abilities of these two Jazz Masters. Both the first tune, Alice In Wonderland, and something they call Blue Dove, which I believe is their reworking of the Spanish tune La Paloma, feature very obvious passages that incorporate this technique of polytonality. While not exactly playing in two keys at once, there exists in harmony various ways of playing together or combining chords while maintaining a certain distance from the tonic and still making that work musically.

This article that ran in the September 9th, 1965 edition of Downbeat had Paul on the cover and it is a great look into his sense of humor and his take on life. He was an interesting and intellectual man, and I believe these qualities informed his music…..

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The definitive archive of all things Paul Desmond resides in the book about his life, Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond.

This book tells an amazing story—Desmond dated some very high profile women in his day, and he led quite a comfortable jazz man’s life in Manhattan once he became famous and financially secure.Paul Desmond rose to fame and fortune from a humble beginning in San Francisco, California, and left behind an incredibly beautiful catalog of recordings.From his collective work with the Brubeck Quartet, to his forays into Brazilian music and his groups with guitar greats like Jim Hall, he was the consummate sideman and leader, a one of a kind musician home grown in San Francisco.To put it bluntly, Paul Desmond is required listening for any aspiring alto saxophone student.

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