Paul Desmond: That Dry Martini Sound

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Paul Desmond, an alto saxophonist, once said he tried to sound like a dry martini. He succeeded in that. Many people know jazz pianist Dave Brubeck‘s work, especially the famous 1959 Columbia session, Time Out. Fewer know that the most famous song on that million-selling album, “Take Five,” was written by Desmond. Desmond balanced the heavy-handed chords of Brubeck with a light, airy sound that was incredibly lyrical. It was truly Desmond’s saxophone poetry that made the group so great.

I wish, however, to divert peoples’ attention away from the Brubeck albums to a wonderful box set that I’ve been listening to: The Complete Paul Desmond RCA Victor Recordings Featuring Jim Hall. The set is comprised of the five albums Desmond recorded for RCA and features their classic original album cover art: Desmond Blue, Take Ten, Glad to Be Unhappy, Bossa Antigua, and Easy Living. Along with Desmond’s dry martini sound, you get the cool and understated sound of Jim Hall‘s guitar. You can listen to each album all the way through; every cut is wonderful.

Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond. Photo by Carl Van Vechten from the Van Vechten Collection at the Library of Congress
Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond. Photo by Carl Van Vechten from the Van Vechten Collection at the Library of Congress (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Desmond had a quirky sense of humor. After hiring Brubeck for his band, Desmond first cut Brubeck’s pay in half, then cut him loose and left for New York. He returned to San Francisco after hearing Brubeck’s music on the radio, wanting to rejoin the pianist. Brubeck was sore at being let go, and upon hearing that Desmond had returned, instructed his wife not to let Desmond into the house should he come by.   Brubeck—who had three young children at the time—was out in the back yard hanging diapers when Desmond arrived. Mrs. Lola Brubeck let him into the house. Desmond begged Brubeck to let him rejoin the group to no avail…that is until he offered to babysit the children. That did the trick.

Desmond loved life, women, and his Dewar’s Scotch and Pall Mall unfiltered cigarettes. When the latter caught up with him (as a heavy smoker) and he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Desmond bragged that his liver was still in good shape. He died at just 52 years of age in 1977.

If you can find the original box set (see upper left blue cover), I recommend that. There is also a less-pricey reissue, more like the paperback counterpart (see upper right red cover). It also has original cover art images, as well as a 6th CD of Desmond working with Gerry Mulligan.

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