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Playing Guitar for Sounds of a Dry Martini



One of the most beloved saxophonists in jazz history is Paul Desmond. JGT contributor Joe Barth explores ‘guitar support’ in the Paul Desmond tribute albums.

Though best known for his classic hit “Take Five” with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Paul recorded several great albums with guitarists Jim Hall and Ed Bickert.  Guitarist Jamie Findlay and saxophonist Brent Jensen pay tribute to the albums that Desmond did with Bickert and Hall first in their 2002 The Sound of a Dry Martini and again in 2020 with their newest tribute More Sounds of a Dry Martini.

Paul Desmond had a light, airy, pure tone on his alto saxophone.  When asked about his tone he said, “I think I had in the back of my mind that I wanted to sound like a dry martini.”  Desmond was known as “the swinging introvert.”  Full of melodicism, his improvised melodies were often a better melody than the tune he was improvising over.  Matching Desmond’s lyricism, Jim Hall and Ed Bickert played their guitars with a pure, direct approach.  Desmond preferred a trio of guitar, bass, and drums to support his alto.  In 2002, Brent Jensen and Jamie Findlay are supported by Zac Matthews on bass, Dean Koba on drums, Chris Symer on bass along with Stefan Schatz and John Bishop on drums for their 2020 recording.

Originally from Seattle, guitarist Jamie Findlay spent much of his professional life performing and teaching in the Los Angeles area.  He has a number of published musical compositions, arrangements and instructional materials and has taught at the Musician’s Institute in Hollywood and the University of Southern California.  He recently relocated to La Conner, Washington.  Now making his home in Seattle, saxophonist Brent Jensen was born in Boise, Idaho, studied with Lee Konitz in New York City, and serve many years as a professor of jazz studies at the College of Southern Idaho. 

I asked Brent Jensen and Jamie Findlay about how they approached both of their first Desmond/Hall-Bickert tributes and then their newest tribute twenty years later.

JB:  Jamie, can you tell us what best embodies the sound of Jim Hall and Ed Bickert as you know it and tell us why?

JF:  Besides excellence in melodic, and harmonic concepts, wonderful phrasing, and such sweetness in his compositions, he really seemed to capture the essence of the West Coast jazz sound, which I must say, it’s assuredly a thing, but it’s not any better or worse than any other art form that gets a label thrown upon it. Paul Desmond has a following, and those that revere him do so because he has something important to say, he has a beautiful message, an interesting point of view. Also, the timbre of his alto sax, and the fluency of his line, plus he seemed to be able to surround himself with some astonishingly good musicians; just in the guitar department – Jim Hall AND Ed Bickert… WOW !!! I mean, come on. 

JB:  Brent, what do you feel best embodies the sound of Paul Desmond?

BJ:  I’ve always had an affinity for the so-called “West Coast,” or “Cool School” alto saxophone sound heard in players like Desmond and Lee Konitz.  Both those players come from the Lester Young school, which employs a light, almost “transparent” quality to the sound along with very little vibrato.  Some people refer to Desmond’s sound as “classical,” but I think they are hearing more his improvisational approach than his actual tone quality when making that comment.  

JB:  As you prepare to play in the style of Jim Hall-Ed Bickert what do you musically and mentally think about?

JF:  I think if I try to play in the style of Jim Hall, or Ed Bickert, I would fall on my face, and I’d come up empty-handed. I admire each of those guys so much. I would say I’m more familiar with Jim Hall, and there’s no way I could fill those shoes. Trying to play in either of their styles would be quite demanding, and I think would be a disservice not only to them, but also to Brent, and the others in the ensemble. The way I decided to approach it, as soon as I met Brent and started rehearsing, is that I would listen to both of the guitarists in their own settings, and with Paul Desmond, and try to come up with the best Jamie Findlay I can, all the while keeping my fondness and love of their playing in my heart, and trying my best to do what I can to make Brent sound as good as I can. Brent and I have played together for over 20 years now, so if he suggests, I try to accommodate him to the best ability. I’d be foolish not to… have you heard him play?!?! But I trust that if he hears something I’m not providing, he’ll let me know. I hope he will.

JB:  Brent, how did you prepare?

BJ:  Even though I’ve now done two Paul Desmond-themed recordings, I still consider the soprano saxophone my primary instrument.  I feel most “at home” when playing soprano and I think it helps direct my alto sound toward that “dry martini” zone.  

JB:  Anything you would like to comment on about how Jim Hall or Ed Bickert would phrase a line in their improvising?

JF:  The thing I really like about Jim Hall, or what comes to mind when I hear him play, whether improvising or executing a melody, is that I just can’t believe how hip it sounds. He reminds me of Miles in that way. Some of the stuff Desmond and Hall did in the mid ’60s has, like “Falling in Love with Paul Desmond,” the ideas Jim Hall comes up with are so great to listen to. Jim studied a lot of music theory in college, and I think I can hear that in his playing. He’ll treat the same part of a chorus within a solo in several different ways, sort of evolving it from the chorus. And he’s not afraid to play in a ‘simple’ way; to just let the line carry the music. I am constantly impressed with his development of a motif. There’s one little place in the first chorus of “Angel Eyes”, where he takes a little chromatic four-note phrase and plays it moving up the neck through the changes, and it’s really one of those “gotta have that” things, and he repeats the same idea later in the same chorus. It’s brilliant. 

Ed Bickert is similar, although, in my opinion, not as ‘delicate’ in his melodic approach. Jim uses a little more space and seems lighter on his fingers than Ed. I am not preferring one to the other; just making an observation. Ed is a little more straight ahead. Also, the sound of his Telecaster is quite unique. Sometimes it’s hard to believe he’s playing a solid body, but one telltale sign is how in tune and ringing the high notes are, especially when he plays a high chord or chord passage. They both play melodic ideas, then pause and back the idea up with a chord passage. I guess I find Jim’s a little more adventurous than Ed’s, but I wouldn’t kick either of them out of the band.

JB:  Brent, what would say about how Paul phrases or develops a motif?

BJ:  Paul is fundamentally a melodic player, not a “pattern” player, so the traditional “chord/scale” approach fails to address his particular improvisational style.  Lee Konitz shares this same attribute of putting melody above all else.  Both Paul and Lee (particularly in his playing from the 50s & early 60s) tend to play long, legato lines spun out from the original melodies of the tunes they are improvising over.  To play in this style, one must be aware of the original outline of the melody and keep it in mind while improvising new lines.

JB:  Jamie, anything you’d add about how Jim Hall and Ed Bickert would develop their melodic motifs?

JF:  Well, as I said before, I know a little more about Jim than I do Ed, and from what I know, his study of music theory and counterpoint while in college most likely informs Jim Hall’s melodic motifs. Another thing I notice is how he will make what seems like so much from so little. When Brent and I were developing the arrangements and choosing the material, I was really struck by his elegance, and when I tried to figure out what he was playing, what sounded complicated, really was quite simple. To me, that’s the sign of a true artist… to make the simple seem intricate.

JB:  Anything you want to say about the similarities or differences in how Jim Hall and Ed Bickert voiced their chords in comping?

JF:  Both used their chord voicings in a sophisticated and distinguished way, I guess I would ‘categorize’ Ed Bickert’s as straight ahead, and Jim Hall’s as more nuanced sonically. They both used a pick and then would incorporate the rest of the fingers in a sort of hybrid pick/fingerpicking style. I would tend to consider Jim Hall a little more harmonically adventurous, a little more playful with the fun notes, but they are both quite accomplished.

JB:  In recording these albums Brent, how do you stay true to your own creativity yet pay homage to what Paul Desmond did?

BJ:  I’m very flattered to have had several people comment (and read in a few reviews) after hearing these recordings that “it sounds like Desmond, but with your own voice”.  I think the tone quality is the most obvious similarity that I share with Desmond, but there’s a difference in the improvisational approach which people have picked up on.  A few have mentioned to me that I “sound like Desmond, but with a little more ‘fire’ in my approach.”

 JB:  Both of these are wonderful albums, and I appreciate you keeping that ‘Desmond guitar quartet sound’ alive and well.

More articles from Joe Barth.

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