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Paul Desmond: The Complete 1975 Toronto Recordings (Mosaic)

A review of seven discs of live recordings from the iconic alto saxophonist

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Paul Desmond: The Complete 1975 Toronto Recordings
The cover of The Complete 1975 Toronto Recordings by Paul Desmond

Every Mosaic Records release is for the niche jazz obsessive, but The Complete 1975 Toronto Recordings is both more niche and more obsessive than most. It comprises seven discs of live recordings from iconic alto saxophonist Paul Desmond and his quartet across 11 nights at Toronto’s Bourbon Street: four in March 1975 and seven in October. On the first page of the set’s notes, we are informed that Toronto bassist and recording engineer Don Thompson recorded Desmond’s quartet in March, October, and November, yet the last month is absent from this “complete” package. It’s one of several facets to this collection that make no sense.

To be clear, the music on The Complete 1975 Toronto Recordings is superb. During both Bourbon Street residencies, Desmond leads the same locally staffed quartet: Thompson, guitarist Ed Bickert, and drummer Jerry Fuller. (Valve trombonist Rob McConnell sits in for two nights in October.) The saxophonist is at the top of his game, effortlessly swinging on two versions of “Tangerine,” four of “Line for Lyons,” and two remarkable workouts of his most evergreen “Take Five” that Desmond stretches into long meditations with a Middle Eastern flavor. Bickert proves himself Desmond’s peer, applying his flawless tone and chordings to rich, surprising harmonies on “Emily” (three times) and a March 29 performance of Jobim’s “Meditation”—which also proves a tour de force for Thompson, who then outdoes himself on October 30’s “Let’s Get Away From It All.” This last is from the McConnell dates, which might well be the most vital of the bunch.

It’s the presentation that’s the problem. Mosaic sequences the tracks without regard to chronological order, or indeed much semblance of order at all. Yes, disc 7 preserves the program from the 1977 LP The Paul Desmond Quartet Live; this is understandable. But while disc 6 does keep all the tracks with McConnell together, the October 31 tracks are shoehorned in between tracks from October 30—which themselves are out of the order given in the back of the booklet. The other five discs are assembled ragtag-style, playing hell with the integrity of the sets. This critic reconfigured the tracks chronologically and found no great aesthetic loss. Why a craftsman like Paul Desmond should be second-guessed in the arcs of his sets is a mystery. On top of this, several tracks on disc 5 are mislabeled. The track listed as “Just Squeeze Me” is clearly “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” while the real “Just Squeeze Me” appears under the banner of “All the Things You Are.” Three more misidentifications make five out of seven tracks with the wrong names.

The notes, by critic and Desmond biographer Doug Ramsey, are generally insightful but can also be meager; discs 3 and 4 are together dispatched in four paragraphs, two of which are a quote from Darius Brubeck. Given that he also writes that his notes will “go through the sessions chronologically,” but instead goes down the haphazard sequence of the discs, one begins to wonder if he was sabotaged. Either way, something clearly went wrong with the assembling of this package.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.