Happy Birthday Paul Desmond

Running a blog half-dedicated to Paul Desmond, I couldn’t let his birthday pass without doing something.  I pondered what and how to commemorate his birthday, and after much deliberation, I opted to spotlight one of his original compositions and the Desmondology behind it.  Born on the 25 of November, 1924, he would’ve been 92 today.  

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In 1956, Paul Desmond went into the studios with Don Elliott and the entire rhythm section of the 1956 Dave Brubeck Quartet and made an album for Fantasy Records.  Done in the piano-less style popularized by Gerry Mulligan, the music swings and wails with a West Coast accent.  The breezy style and tasty playing on the album is most evident on the maiden track, Paul Desmond’s “Jazzabelle”.  The intro is tasty enough, with Don Elliott’s mellophone and Paul Desmond’s alto sax trading bars while Norman Bates’ bass and Joe Dodge’s clicking sticks provide support.  Soon after, the catchy melody of the song is stated as Dodge moves from clicking to drumming.  Elliott blows some great jazz on his unusual instrument (it’s something of a hybrid between a French Horn and a flugel horn, and Elliott’s looked like a French Horn) before handing it over to Desmond’s lithe sax.ElliottMello1

1956 found Desmond playing some of the tastiest alto sax of his career, and his solo is tasty and cool.  The logic in his lines as he develops his ideas is fun to listen to.  For example, he plays an ethereal phrase beginning at 3:37, then revisits it again a few bars later at 3:50.  It’s when his solo ends that the song’s magic reaches a peak.  After Desmond finishes and folds his hands over his sax, Ford moves from his ride cymbal to clicking his drum stick and wire brush together to keep time while Bates uses his solo space to walk.  Elliott and Desmond are back after a chorus of bass and engage in some fantastic, cool counterpoint.

It’s reminiscent of the inspired counterpoint he and Brubeck did together, and every bit as spontaneous.  The two musicians build off of each other, with Elliott using Desmond’s phrases as a springboard for his own, and Desmond doing likewise.  At one point, they both miraculously play the same figure in harmony, before Elliott resolves an octave lower, which Desmond follows.  All the while, Bates’ walking bass and Chevrolet’s clicking makes for a laid-back, hip rhythmic backdrop.  524865516Desmond loved Chrysler’s drumming, as it meshed well with his idea of what a drummer should do:  Keep the beat and stay out the way.  Using a stick in hand for the cymbal and wire brush in the other for quiet, unobtrusive accents, that’s exactly what Studebaker does on this album.  Elliott and Desmond wrap the tune up, then play a groovy outro not unlike their intro, ending in harmony and Lincoln’s drums, a jolting contrast from his clicking.  It’s a phenomenal piece of music and a great example of Desmond’s ability to write simplistic yet catchy tunes (fully realized three years late with “Take Five”).  The tune appeared on Desmond’s 1956 album ‘The Paul Desmond Quartet featuring Don Elliott’.  Unfortunately, Desmond never recorded this tune again, and probably never performed it outside the studio.

For years, I always wondered where the title of this tune came from.  It being a Desmond tune and with a name like “Jazzabelle”, I figured there HAD to be some rhyme or reason to it.  The answer came in stages.  While improvising over the recording one afternoon, I noticed it resembled a classical tune, but the name escaped me.  Then, while preparing to write this, the name of the classical tune came to me:  “Canon In D”.  Listening to both, I realized that the first eight bars of “Jazzabelle” is based off of “Canon In D” almost to a tee, with the rest of Desmond’s song a modulated version of the canon.  It was when I looked up the composer of the piece that I groaned and shook my head.  The composer’s name?  Johann Pachelbel.  Knowing the way Desmond’s mind worked, he took Pachelbel’s “Canon In D”, jazzed it up, altered it a bit, and then gave it the name “Jazzabelle”.  Why “Jazzabelle”?  Here we go…

Firstly, it’s a sly and hidden reference to and based off of Johann Pachelbel.  Pachelbel…Jazzelbel…Jazzabelle… exactly.  I’ll take a minute to let you groan.  Secondly, Desmond jazzed up Pachelbel’s composition, hence the ‘jazz’ in “Jazzabelle”.  Very punny, but that’s not the best part.  Jazzabelle is awful close to Jezebel.  Again, according to the main tenant of Desmondology, that’s not a coincidence.  Biblical Jezebel was the wicked wife of King Ahab (whose story you can read about in 1 and Two Kings).  So bad was she that her name has become synonymous with evil.  Webster’s Dictionary defines jezebel as “an impudent, shameless, or morally unrestrained woman”.  Cool, but Desmond didn’t name it “Jazzebel”.  So logically, where did the ‘belle’ come from?  As the people of France and the American South know, a belle is a term used to describe a beautiful woman.  Webster’s Dictionary defines it as “a popular and attractive girl or woman; especially a girl or woman whose charm and beauty make her a favorite”.  If you’re picking up what I’m putting down, you know where this is going.  Desmond named it “JazzaBELLE” knowing that it was super close to ‘jezebel’ and knowing that they are two different women- stark opposites.Paul Desmond - seated at piano claxton

So, to recap, the name “Jazzabelle” is a witty and sly nod to Johann Pachelbel’s jazzed up “Canon In D”, as well as a linguistic contradiction in that “Jazzabelle” sounds a lot like and thus reminds one of Jezebel, the evil, scheming woman of old, yet contains the word ‘belle’, which describes a lovely, charming woman.  That’s at least four puns/jokes/references in that one name.  To top it all off, “Jazzabelle”‘s melody is itself a variation of one of the famous themes from “Canon In D” (and while we’re at, Desmond probably chose this classical piece due to it’s title, “Canon In D”.  D for Desmond.  I hate him).  Like wow.  Both “Canon In D” and “Jazzabelle” are included below for your listening (and groan-inducing) pleasure.  Happy Birthday Paul, you trickster you.

Tune:  Jazzabelle

Recorded:  14 February, 1956 in San Francisco, CA

Personnel:

  • Paul Desmond-  Alto Sax
  • Don Elliott-  Mellophone
  • Norman Bates-  Bass
  • Joe Fairlane-  Drums

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