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Exploring the Complete RCA Victor Recordings of Paul Desmond with Jim Hall



Jazz Guitar Today contributor Joe Barth dives into the Complete RCA Victor Recordings of Paul Desmond with Jim Hall.

To me, one of the most enjoyable and rewarding listening experiences in jazz is the multi-CD set from Paul Desmond entitled Paul Desmond – The Complete RCA Victor Recordings featuring Jim Hall. The cool, effervescent sound of Desmond’s alto sax combined with the thoughtfully restrained yet supportive comping of Jim Hall’s guitar is something listeners have found enjoyment and musical satisfaction in over the years.  In this article, I desire to celebrate these historic recordings.  

Paul Emil Breitenfeld was born in San Francisco, CA in 1924.  Paul adopted the stage name Desmond in 1942 after listening to the Glenn Miller band whose singer’s name was Johnny Desmond.  It was Desmond who first hired Brubeck for some gigs in California, but due to a gambling problem, Paul cut Brubeck’s pay in half in order to have more money for the casinos in Reno, Nevada. Brubeck quit, returned to the Bay Area, and started a trio that landed a radio show.  When Paul heard of Brubeck’s success, he wanted to play gigs with Dave again, but Dave refused, in fact, Dave didn’t even want Desmond in his home.  But Paul was persistent knocking on the Brubeck’s door.  It was only after Dave’s wife Iola invited Paul in and Dave saw another side of Desmond when Paul was playing with the Brubeck children. When Paul occasionally offered to babysit for the Brubeck’s that Dave felt Paul learned his lesson and invited him to join his trio.  In 1951 the Dave Brubeck Quartet was born and put Paul Desmond “on the map”. Their rendition of the Desmond song “Take Five” became the biggest selling jazz record of all time. 

Brubeck and his record label, Columbia Records, wanted to protect the special sound Brubeck and Desmond had. So, in a handshake agreement, Paul Desmond agreed to not work with any other pianists so as not to compare and diminish his musical partnership with Dave Brubeck.  When on his own, Desmond would organize a piano-less combo, as he did with Gerry Mulligan, or work with cool-toned guitarists like Jim Hall and Ed Bickert.

James Stanley Hall was born in Buffalo, NY in 1930 but grew up in the Cleveland, Ohio area. Jim began playing the guitar at the age of ten when he received a guitar as a Christmas gift.  At age thirteen he was listening to a Benny Goodman record and heard Charlie Christian for the first time.  Jim refers to that as his “spiritual awakening.”

Jim moved to Los Angeles in 1956 and played in Chico Hamilton’s quintet then on to the Jimmy Giuffre Three.  In 1960 Jim moved to New York City and worked with such great musicians as Lee Konitz, Sonny Rollins, Art Farmer, and Bill Evans to name a few.  In 1963 he joined the staff orchestra for the Merv Griffin Show.  Guitarists Mundell Lowe tells… “Jim took over from me at the Merv Griffen Show when I moved to Los Angeles.  When I knew I was leaving Merv’s show I thought of Jim because I knew at the time he wasn’t very busy.  I asked Jim if he was interested and he said yes.  I said come down to the studio and I’ll introduce you to Merv. He came down and we went up to Merv’s office and we had a nice three-way conversation.  After a few moments, Merv asked Jim to go downstairs for a moment and he did.  When we were alone Merv said to me ‘I don’t want a bald-headed guitar player on my show.’  (laughter) I said, ‘Do you want a great guitar player or just any guitar player so long as he has a full head of hair?’  Merv said, ‘If he plays as good as you say, he has the job.’ (laughter)”  

Desmond had a wonderful studio partnership producing six albums with guitarist Jim Hall from 1959 to 1966.  The first album First Place Again (Warner Bros.) included bassist Percy Heath and drummer Connie Kay of the Modern Jazz Quartet.   It was when Desmond and Hall moved to RCA Victor that the albums of this collection Paul Desmond – The Complete RCA Victor Recordings featuring Jim Hall were recorded.

Concerning his work with Paul Desmond, Jim Hall in an interview with Marc Myers tells that their musical “closeness comes through on the recordings because we liked and admired each other so much.”  As they were recording they were enjoying what each was playing.  “We were entertaining each other. A lot of what we did happened to be in the moment and fed off of what the other was doing.”  

Paul Desmond’s  Desmond Blue  RCA Records;  Jim Hall: guitar; Paul Desmond: sax; Gene Cherico and Milt Hinton: bass; Connie Kay and Bobby Thomas: drums 1962

Recorded in the fall of 1961 at Webster Hall in New York City.  This is the only album that features a small string orchestra.  Bob Prince arranged and conducted the charts.  Shawn Haney says…

The record, filled with such beautiful jazz standards as “My Funny Valentine,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and “Body and Soul,” is very rich in texture, yet subtle and mellow overall in mood. Its unyielding purpose: to soothe the souls of its listeners. Desmond’s style and tone shine with an alluring quality, and the record is filled with melodies that don’t fail to stimulate the sophisticated jazz listener. 

High points on the album are the rendition of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” a beautiful contrapuntal sequence between Desmond and bassist Milt Hilton. Jim Hall begins to lightly comp toward the end of the chorus as Hall and Hilton weave their own contrapuntal duet in the following chorus.  After a string introduction “Body and Soul” is done in a moderate swing where Jim supports Desmond’s melody with a Freddie Greenish comping until he takes over the melodic work at the bridge.

Paul Desmond’s  Take 10  RCA Records;  Jim Hall: guitar; Paul Desmond: sax; Eugene Wright and Gene Cherico: bass; Connie Kay: drums 1963

Recorded in June of 1963 at Webster Hall in New York City Desmond and Hall return to their quartet only format that they had in 1959 for the record for Warner Brothers.  In 1961 “Take Five” was a huge hit for the Brubeck Quartet so Desmond sets out to repeat himself and write another hit.  As Richard Ginell states… Everyone wanted Desmond to come up with a sequel to the monster hit “Take Five”; and so he did, reworking the tune and playfully designating the meter as 10/8. Hence “Take Ten,” a worthy sequel with a solo that has a Middle-Eastern feeling akin to Desmond’s famous extemporaneous excursion with Brubeck in “Le Souk” back in 1954.

Without getting into the other specific songs on this album I’d like to quote Desmond’s original liner notes that are filled with such dry humor and wit…

 TAKE TEN: further reflections on “Black Orpheus” and other timely topics…

This space is usually occupied, as most hardened collectors know, by the prose stylings of George Avakian (records producer). I’m taking his place this time partly because he’s up to his jaded ears in Newport tapes and partly because this way we’ll have room on the back for pictures. This brings us instantly to the first problem, which is that George frequently starts out by saying all manner of nice things about me which I can’t say about myself without blushing, and it’s ridiculous to walk around blushing when you are twenty-two years old. Nevertheless, I should explain who I am and all, especially for those among you who may have picked up the album because of the cover under the impression that you were getting the score from a Vincent Price movie.

Briefly, then, I’m this saxophone player from the Dave Brubeck Quartet, with which I’ve been associated since shortly after the Crimean War. You can tell which one is me because when I’m not playing, which is surprisingly often, I’m leaning against the piano. I also have less of a smile than the other fellows. (This is because of the embouchure, or the shape of your mouth, while playing, and is very deceptive. You didn’t really think Benny Goodman was all that happy, did you? Nobody’s that happy.) I have won several prizes as the world’s slowest alto player, as well as a special award in 1961 for quietness.

My compatriot in this venture is Jim Hall, about whom it’s difficult to say anything complimentary enough. He’s a beautiful musician-the favorite guitar-picker of many people who agree on little else in music, and he goes to his left very well. Some years ago, he was the leading character, by proxy, in a movie starring Tony Curtis (SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS), a mark of distinction achieved only recently by such other notables as Hugh Hefner and Genghis Khan. He’s a sort of combination of Pablo Casals and W.C. Fields and hilari­ously easy to work with except he complains once in a while when I lean on the guitar.

Gene Cherico, who’s becoming a thoroughly fantastic bass player, has only been playing bass for the last eight years. (Before that he was a drummer, but a tree fell on him. No kidding, that’s the kind of life he leads.) On TAKE TEN he was replaced by my sturdy buoy and hard-driving friend Eugene Wright.

Connie Kay is, of course, the superb drummer from the Modern Jazz Quartet, and if a tree ever falls on him I may just shoot myself. He’s like unique.

About the tunes: TAKE TEN is another excursion into 5/4 or 10/8, whichever you prefer. Since writing TAKE FIVE a few years back, a number of other possibilities in the 5 & 10 bag have come to mind from time to time. TAKE TEN is one of them. THEME FROM ‘BLACK ORPHEUS’ and SAMBA DE ORFEU, along with EMBARCADERO and EL PRINCE; are in a rhythm which by now I suppose should be called bossa antigua. (It’s too bad the bossa nova became such a hula-hoop promotion. The original feeling was really a wild, subtle, delicate thing but it got lost there for a while in the avalanche. It’s much too musical to be just a fad; it should be a permanent part of the scene. One more color for the long winter night, and all.)

ALONE TOGETHER, NANCY, and THE ONE I LOVE are old standards I’ve always liked. They were arranged, more or less, while we were milling about drinking coffee and all. This approach, while making for a comfortable looseness, usually leads to general apprehension towards the end of the take and frequent disasters, but occasionally you get a fringe benefit. At the end of ALONE TOGETHER, Connie hit the big cymbal a good whang there and it sailed off the drum set and crashed on the floor. After the hysterical laughter subsided we were getting set to tear through it one more time but we listened to it anyway, out of curiosity, and it sounded nice so we left it in. That’s one of the few advantages this group has over the MJQ-if Connie’s cymbal hits the floor on an MJQ record date, you by God know it, but with this group, you can’t really be sure.

George Avakian was benevolently present at all stages of getting this record togeth­er, and Bob Prince, doubtless overwhelmed at having a song named after him, appeared fre­quently with advice and counsel which was totally disregarded.

Paul Desmond’s Glad to Be Unhappy; RCA Victor LPS LPM 3407;  Paul Desmond: alto sax; Jim Hall: guitar; Eugene Wright and Gene Cherico: bass; Connie Kay: drums  1965

Recorded in Webster Hall and RCA Studio A in New York City in both 1963 and 1964, Desmond seems to give Jim Hall equal space to express himself on this album. Richard Ginell says …”At first glance, Desmond may seem only peripherally involved with the music-making, keeping emotion at a cool, intellectual arms’ length, yet his exceptionally pure tone and ruminative moods wear very well over the long haul.”  My high point on the album is “Angel Eyes” which features great solos by both Desmond and Hall.  Of Jim Hall’s solo on this song Ginell says “the (guitar) solo on “Angel Eyes” is an encyclopedia of magnificent chording and single-string eloquence.” 

Paul Desmond’s Bossa Antigua; RCA Victor LPS 3320;  Paul Desmond: alto sax; Jim Hall: guitar; Eugene Wright and Gene Cherico: bass; Connie Kay: drums  1964

In my opinion, this is the best album of the five. For this outing Desmond and Hall do all their recording at RCA Studio A in the summer of 1964. From 1962 to 1964 saxophonist Stan Getz enjoyed prodigious popularity with the Bossa Nova style and his rendition of “The Girl from Ipanema” and “Desafinado.”  Most of the saxophonists of the day jumped on the “bossa band-wagon” and Desmond recorded this music at the height of the style’s U.S. popularity.  Most of the album is Desmond originals that are so good, one would want to listen to them again and again.  Richard Ginell says “Of the album’s two non-originals, “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” of course, is made-to-order for Desmond’s wistful, sophisticated temperament, and he delivers exactly what a Desmond devotee would expect and love; and “A Ship Without a Sail” has some memorable off-the-cuff solo ideas. Jim Hall is around again to lend subtle rhythm support and low-key savvy in his solos, and like many Desmond companions of this period, he makes a fine sparring partner in the contrapuntal exchanges.” 

This is especially demonstrated on what I consider the best song of the album, Desmond’s “Girl from East 9th Street.”  In my humble opinion, jazz guitar-saxophone doesn’t get any better than this.

Paul Desmond’s  Easy Living RCA Records;  Jim Hall: guitar; Paul Desmond: sax; Eugene Wright, Gene Cherico, and Percy Heath: bass; Connie Kay: drums 1964

Recorded in Webster Hall and RCA Studio A in New York City in 1963, 1964, and 1965. RCA took some of the tunes that didn’t make the other albums and compiled them with three freshly recorded standards to make this record.  But, do not fear, these are not “left-overs” as evident in the exquisite playing in the opening “When Joanna Loved Me” where Desmond lets Hall stretch out as Jim plays one of his most well-thought-through solos of the collection. Richard Ginell says “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” opens with Hall paraphrasing the tune, and Desmond comes in on the bridge with a perfectly timed rejoinder that sounds as if he’s asking a question. “Here’s That Rainy Day” is another apt match of a standard to Desmond’s sophisticated personality; he is at his dry, jaunty best on the up-tempo “That Old Feeling”; and both have a ball jamming on the blues in Desmond’s wry, quick “Blues for Fun.”

Another high point is Lerner and Loewe’s “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” which I believe is the finest rendition of this song in jazz history.

(Editor’s note) This RCA collection may be hard to find, but much of the music can be found on this English recording priced about $15. Paul Desmond: Complete Albums Collection: 1953-1963)

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