From 1950 to 1967, Paul Desmond played with the wildly successful Dave Brubeck Quartet; their midpoint triumph Time Out from 1959 is a staple on lists of the most important jazz LPs. Although Desmond contributed the biggest hit to the band book, “Take Five,” that immortal theme is an outlier, for Desmond mainly functioned in the Brubeck group as star soloist. While Brubeck’s relentlessly compositional and occasionally un-swinging piano style could be controversial, Desmond’s relaxed command of improvised melody on the alto saxophone was universally beloved. It was a style informed by Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Lee Konitz, but Desmond’s gently seductive phrasing is one of the great thumbprints of jazz. You can recognize him in a single note. Desmond later regretted saying, “I wanted to sound like a dry martini,” but this metaphor was simply too perfect not be associated with him forevermore.
Early on, Brubeck and Desmond reached an informal agreement: The saxophonist shouldn’t muddy the waters by recording with other pianists. In the ’60s, that resulted in a string of classic Desmond LPs with guitarist Jim Hall. A few years later, both Hall and writer Gene Lees told Desmond about a great guitar player in Canada, Ed Bickert.
American jazz stars had been recording with non-American bands for decades. These valuable exchanges usually happened abroad and stayed abroad, but once in a while an American would return to New York with a non-native in tow. In the late summer of 1974, after two weeks in Toronto with a local rhythm section, Desmond was so excited about Ed Bickert that he convinced Creed Taylor to include Bickert on the next Desmond album for CTI, which would be released the following year under the title Pure Desmond.
“The bigger, the better!” was usually part of the early-’70s CTI ethos. Taylor loved orchestral arrangers like Eumir Deodato and Don Sebesky, not to mention added keyboards and percussion. Before Pure Desmond, Taylor had overseen Desmond excursions into bossa nova and Simon & Garfunkel. It was time to relax and make a simple straight-ahead album, “pure” as the title indicated.
Ron Carter was the house bassist for CTI and appeared on all the Desmond/Taylor collaborations; Carter also played a couple of weeks in an NYC Desmond quartet with Tommy Flanagan and Al Harewood. Desmond loved word games and derived the anagram “Tone Racer” from “Ron Carter.” Connie Kay was Desmond’s favorite drummer, a musician for whom the word “tasteful” seemed to be invented, an attribute displayed on any album by the Modern Jazz Quartet. However, Kay also came up playing R&B, and had backed the likes of Ray Charles during an early tenure as house drummer at Atlantic Records. Together, Carter and Kay are so swinging they are almost dangerous.
Later on, Desmond grimly joked about what he made Bickert do. “…Dragging him down to New York and letting him get hit over the head with everybody all at once. Take him out to Rudy Van Gelder’s: ‘Hello, this is Rudy Van Gelder, this is Creed Taylor, Ron Carter, Connie Kay. 1, 2, 3…’” However, Bickert sounds right at home with the Americans, the momentum of the date in perfect gear. Speaking of gear, Bickert’s choice of a Fender Telecaster as his main ax was regarded as highly non-jazz in the ’70s; today, in the wake of Frisell, Stern, Lage, and many others, his tone simply sounds prescient.
Creed Taylor added strings, keyboards, and percussionists to CTI records because he wanted to create a “mood.” Pure Desmond is jazz, but it is also a nigh-perfect mood album. The tracks just ease on down the road, pure swing, pure melody, pure vibe. Carter’s funky bass is hot in the mix, catching the ear as much as a bass part on something from Motown. Kay’s ride cymbal dances, Bickert’s guitar romances. (And he gets extra credit for supplying superb and accurate compositional details on Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages” and Duke Ellington’s “Warm Valley.”)
Desmond himself is in excellent form, just like he always was. This was an alto player who almost never made a mistake, not just in terms of the notes but also in terms of basic aesthetics. He was always “pure.” What makes or breaks any Desmond record is the context, not the saxophonist, and Pure Desmond with Ed Bickert, Ron Carter, and Connie Kay will always remain in a shimmering class of one.
- The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Jazz at Oberlin (Fantasy, 1953): This date has some truly remarkable alto improvisations, at the time a striking alternative to the Charlie Parker school.
- Paul Desmond, From the Hot Afternoon (CTI, 1970): A big Creed Taylor production arranged by Don Sebesky featuring wonderful compositions by Milton Nascimento.
- The Paul Desmond Quartet Live (Horizon, 1976): Some Desmond authorities consider the final period with the “Canadian Quartet” of Bickert, Don Thompson, and Jerry Fuller to be the saxophonist’s most masterful music. Live, the Bickert/Desmond connection is explored at leisure.