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Paul Desmond: The Complete Paul Desmond RCA Victor Recordings Featuring Jim Hall

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True enough in one sense, what with the instrument’s close connection to bebop, Desmond’s self-characterization as “the world’s slowest alto player” reflected another, less obvious level of deprecation in that it glossed over his distinctive, melodic invention and pristine tone. It wasn’t that he was slow, rather he phrased broadly, defining space instead of filling it-a rare quality that helped distinguish him as one of the alto saxophone’s unique stylists.

But while those features were well apparent during Desmond’s tenure with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, the ensemble’s strong group identity effectively prevented him from receiving due credit. Of course, he played a role in being known as a band member rather than an artist in his own right by rarely recording as a leader outside of the quartet, the major exception being the important series of early-’60s dates that resulted in the five albums represented here-Desmond Blue, Take Ten, Glad To Be Unhappy, Bossa Antigua and Easy Living, all produced by George Avakian and featuring guitarist Jim Hall, a kindred spirit musically and, in all probability, personally.

Arranger Bob Prince had “always wanted to hear Desmond with strings,” according to the liner notes. Framing a pianoless rhythm section (Hall, drums, and bassist Milt Hinton for the most part) with harp, French horn, two woodwinds, and strings, that wish came to pass in the form of 1962’s Desmond Blue. On the surface, the atmospheric, occasionally overly dramatic writing coupled with Desmond’s subdued approach gives the music a veneer that seems more appropriate for film; however, the alto work is subtly ingenious, and the arrangements peppered with brilliant moments, including the contrapuntal introduction to “My Funny Valentine,” the Stravinsky-reminiscent opening to “I Should Care,” and the imitative lead-ins to and unobtrusive cushions of both “Body And Soul” and “Imagination.” Throughout, Hall’s solo voice rises from the textures with elegant purity and graceful architecture.

The transparent pairing of Desmond and Hall-with their highly compatible, minimalist approaches-is necessarily highlighted by the remaining, small group performances, which overall include fair shares of ballads, swinging standards, bossas, and originals. Connie Kay, who played on one track of Desmond Blue, settles in as the regular drummer, while Eugene Wright, George Duvivier and Gene Cherico rotate the bass chair. The title track to Take Ten reprises the groove of “Take Five;” Desmond’s silken improvisation momentarily alludes to the Middle East. Kay’s active work on the quick bossa “El Prince” provides the underpinning for a punchy alto solo, a rhythmic guitar excursion, and some delicate, interactive counterpoint.

Subdued swing is the tacit theme of Glad To Be Unhappy, with its absence of bossas and odd meters. Dialogues between Desmond and Hall are frequent, including the fluent twos of “Poor Butterfly” and the conversant way guitar encourages horn during “Stranger In Town.” Perhaps Desmond was holding back the Latin numbers for his next album, Bossa Antigua. With Kay’s expansive drumming providing a focal point, Desmond and Hall articulate their way through the set with highly melodic motifs and sure rhythmic sensibilities, especially on “Ship Without A Sail” (with a quasi montuno opening by Hall) and “Alianca” and “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” (both of which marry bossa and swing). Ballads and swing again are the focus of the final disc, Easy Living, which includes the uptempo “Blues For Fun” and more sublime interplay.

While all of this material has been reissued (including six alternate takes), here it’s presented in one neat package that features the original cover art, two sets of liner notes penned by Desmond and Doug Ramsey’s illuminating annotation. With a singing, personal approach that reflects more of a Dixieland influence than is usually recognized (albeit recast in modern terms), Desmond demonstrated that there was another way of playing the alto saxophone. In short, he was one of a kind.