Regular readers of my blog know that while I’m a jazz record collector as well as a jazz fan in general, I’m a huge Paul Desmond/Dave Brubeck fan. HUGE. This passion for their music has resulted in me scouring the internet for rare music, photos, information, anything pertaining to Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck. I’ve discovered a lot, some of which I’ve written about here on my blog, but last summer I made a tremendous discovery that is much bigger than Paul Desmond. After much research, negotiations, sweat and tears, I am happy to announce that a 60-year mystery has finally been solved: The Blue Note catalog number 1553 was in fact designated to an album, and it is finally being released. What was the album? An unusual project featuring the sounds of Horace Silver and… Paul Desmond.
The background story:
In my constant search for ‘new’ Brubeck and Desmond recordings, I discovered that the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. contains thousands of tapes of jazz, never released publicly. Among these tapes included numerous tapes of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, many of them live archival tapes, but also tapes of from various albums. Last summer, when I was in D.C., I made sure to make a visit to the Library of Congress (LOC). While the main attraction was Brubeck recordings, since they had numerous other jazz musicians’ tapes there, I looked up Horace Silver. Numerous titles came up, including a tape that had two of my favorite Horace Silver compositions on it, “Ecaroh” and “Enchantment”. My curiosity piqued, I decided to check it out. The tape was labeled ‘Unreleased Studio Album 1958’, and the short description only said “Horace Silver Sextet Feat. Luop- Studio Tape w/ Num. Takes, Chatter”. That sounded extremely interesting, especially the Luop person. Who’s Luop? After the good people at the LOC made the tape available for me to listen to, I plugged my headphones into the computer and hit play. The tape started off with some guys talking while a bass warmed up with a bow. After a few seconds, a voice that I later realized was Horace Silver’s said “alright Rudy, here we go.” There was some more low chatter, then music. I couldn’t believe it. Rudy? Not Rudy Van Gelder Rudy… The music was in stereo, and had that unmistakable Blue Note sound, so it had to be a RVG recording. There were three horns and the rhythm section, and they were playing a minor blues. After they finished playing the melody, there was silence as the bass and drums continued, followed by a “hold it” and laughter. An unidentified voice said “I didn’t know you were serious”, followed by more laughter. Then, a deeper voice replied “People already know this is my album, I don’t need to go first. Keep ’em guessing”. I almost had a stroke. I recognized that voice- it was Paul Desmond’s voice! I couldn’t believe it. Paul Desmond with Horace Silver?! What was going on here? Further listening revealed that the tenor sax was Hank Mobley and the trumpet was Art Farmer, with Paul Chambers on bass and Art Blakey on drums.
I got in contact with Ricky Nelson, head of Paul Desmond’s estate, who was just as shocked as I was. He had no knowledge of Paul Desmond having recorded with Horace Silver and definitely didn’t know such a tape existed. He informed Blue Note expert Michael Cuscuna, who was equally surprised. After a few months of furious digging, Ozzie Nelson discovered a box with an empty reel-to-reel tape canister with “To Luap” on it. Also inside the box was a blank cardboard record sleeve with a record inside, also with blank white labels on it, as well as a manila envelope with album artwork and a typed set of liner notes. Upon listening to the record, it was discovered that it was a test pressing of an album that never was. The album art had the holy grail Blue Note catalog number BST 1553. These efforts, combined with the discovery of an entry in Rudy Van Gelder’s records that read “8-8-58 with “Horace S and Luap D, BLP 1553”, revealed that this was the missing Blue Note 1553. Alfred Lion, after realizing he had accidentally skipped over Blue Note 1553, decided to release this project as BLP 1553 even though it was recorded after Blue Note made the switch from the 1500 series to the 4000 series.
According to RVG’s meticulous personal logbooks and records, he made four test pressings, one of which was sent to Paul Desmond. The other three have been lost. RVG also sent Paul a tape of the entire recording session, which is the tape that the LOC had. Reid Miles made the album artwork, the liner notes were printed, but before any more records were made, the project was shelved. When Dave Brubeck formed his quartet, he told Paul Desmond that he couldn’t record with other pianists, so when Brubeck found out about it, he refused to allow it be released. Nothing was ever mentioned about it after that, and Alfred Lion never attempted to assign an album to Blue Note 1553 again.
Now, thankfully, due to its rediscovery, Blue Note Records is finally releasing it this month, first as a limited edition vinyl release, followed by a release on all music formats. Ozzie Nelson and the good folks at Blue Note have graciously given me a vinyl copy of the album before the official release date. The liner notes explain how Paul Desmond came to be recording with Horace Silver, among other things. So, enough from me. To the record!
Wow. Reid Miles always did a great job when it came to designing Blue Note’s cover art, and this is a great example of his work. He took a particularly fantastic shot of Paul Desmond by Francis Wolff, threw that classic blue tint over it, used the same blue in the font. His use of white coloring for Desmond’s name and the title/album catalog number makes for an eye-catching contrast to the rest of the artwork. Francis Wolff’s rare picture of Paul Desmond perfectly captures his spirit and typical pose: Eyes closed, lost in the music. The city blurred out behind him is a nice touch.
The name of the album is ‘Sketchin”, and features a line-up made in jazz heaven. The combination of Hank Mobley and Art Farmer alone is a winning one, with Mobley’s smooth, warm, fuzzy sax proving the perfect foil to Art Farmer’s lyrical, silky trumpet. To throw Paul Desmond’s lithe, airy alto in the mix? Mercy. Paul Chambers’ appearance is noteworthy as there aren’t too many recordings of Chambers with Horace Silver. Art Blakey’s appearance is pretty wild considering Paul Desmond’s preference for quiet drummers who stayed out the way. However, Art Blakey could be unobtrusive when necessary, providing firm support even with brushes, and that’s exactly what he does on this album behind Desmond. Like I said, though, the liner notes answer a lot of questions.
The notes are written by “Luap Dnomsed”, marking another appearance by this Luap character. Who is Luap? A quick read through the liner notes reveals it’s… Paul Desmond. Yep. The man was famous for his droll wit and humor, and it’s on full display on this album, from the liner notes to the music itself. His rather hilarious liner notes explain that he was always a fan of Horace Silver and wanted to record his favorite Silver compositions, specifically “Ecaroh”, “Moon Rays”, and “Enchantment”. After asking him at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival about making an album, they got together and made one. The horn players were picked by Desmond, while Silver chose a drummer and bassist.
The liner notes also shed light on the music. In addition to the three Silver tunes, there are two originals by Desmond and one jazz standard, and each one has a story behind it. Desmond’s “Sketchin'”, the album opener, is a medium-tempo, strutting blues in B-flat. In the liner notes, Desmond describes “Sketchin'” as “a doodlin’ blues”, a veiled reference to Silver’s own blues tune “Doodlin'”. Like Desmond’s more famous blues tune “Audrey”, this blues starts off in B-flat minor before eventually moving to the major key. After the simple, harmonized melody is stated twice, Art Farmer solos first. He spins haunting, sweet lines on his trumpet, effectively using arpeggios to build his solo. After four choruses, he hands it over to Desmond, who takes the end phrase of Farmer’s solo and uses it as a spring board for his own flight of fancy. Art Blakey, who switched from brushes to sticks during Farmer’s handoff to Desmond, firmly but quietly keeps time behind Desmond’s eight-chorus solo. Hank Mobley’s solo is warm and succinct at three choruses. Silver’s piano solo begins softly but bluesy, building with classic Silver chords until he swings into a major key. He plays another chorus in the major key, then the horns are back in to trade fours for a chorus before taking the blues out in a harmonized version of Desmond’s “Balcony Rock/Audrey” tag.
“Luap”, the other Desmond original, again pays homage to a Silver tune. “Luap”, in the tradition of “Airegin” and “Ecaroh”, was written “by one Paul to another”, the other Paul being Paul Chambers, who is featured with the first solo. The song itself is based on the chord progressions of one of Desmond’s favorite songs, “All The Things You Are”, something Desmond slyly references in the liner notes (it has “all the things you need for some fun blowing”). Tunesmiths will recognize the melody line as a variation on the old Richard Rodgers tune “Why Can’t I”, also slyly hinted to by Desmond in the liner notes. Paul Desmond’s mind was something else. Everyone gets a chance to stretch out on this tune, which clocks in at twelve minutes. Taken at a jaunty, finger-popping tempo, Hank Mobley especially shines on this track, finding his groove and blowing for five choruses. Paul Chambers’ bowed bass solo on this track ranks among his best in his recorded career.
The main attraction of this album (aside from the band personnel) is hearing Paul Desmond solo on Silver’s compositions. On “Ecaroh”, the group follows Silver’s original arrangement, with everyone taking a single chorus. Desmond goes first, making the breezy Latin song sound even more breezy. The addition of a third horn makes the harmonized tags at the beginning and end as well as the melody statement sound delicious, with Desmond’s horn on the top, Mobley’s malted tenor on the bottom, and Farmer’s trumpet moving in the middle. Absolutely delectable.
“Enchantment” is probably the best track on the album, but I’m biased. “Enchantment” is my absolute favorite Silver composition. The intro on the original version has two horns; the “Enchantment” that appears on this album has all three horns, plus Silver’s gorgeous chords. Desmond calls it a ballad, but it’s done at a walking tempo and the swing is still there. Art Blakey’s tasteful use of mallets on his drum set gives a bouncy, groovy vibe that spreads to all the soloists. Desmond again starts things off, and his playing here is some of the best of his career. Digging into the tune and prodded by Silver’s rhythmic comping and Blakey’s mallets, Desmond blows four choruses of soulful, lyrical jazz. On his last chorus, he’s swinging so hard that when he cracks a note while playing a four-note figure, he simply repeats the phrase in a lower register without missing a beat and without cracking the note. After his solo, Farmer, Mobley and Silver add their statements to the tune before playing another tag that leads to a tasty solo from Blakey. The horns are back, and they take the tune out.
“Moon Rays” is a little unusual in that it’s the fastest tune on the album. As Desmond says in the liners, it’s less “Polka Dots And Moonbeams” and more “How High The Moon”. Blakey sticks to brushes on this track, with Mobley taking the first solo. Everyone gets two choruses, then the three horns do some impressive counterpoint before taking the tune out.
The last tune on the album, “Star Eyes”, at first glance seems like a random choice until you look again at the tune that preceded it. The influence of Dave Brubeck is evident on this track, as it’s played in a waltzing 3/4 time while Art Blakey brushes in a fast 4/4 time, like Brubeck’s “Someday My Prince Will Come”. Desmond flourishes here, easily floating in, out, and over the dueling time signatures and playing some fantastically tasty stuff in the process. Art Farmer proves equally adept at navigating the rhythmic waters, while Mobley’s comparatively stiff playing implies a more cautious approach was needed. Silver dives right in with a phrase straight out of an R&B jump band at the beginning of his solo and continues in a blues-drenched vein the rest of the tune. To my knowledge, this is the only waltz treatment of this jazz standard.
Within the first few bars of the first track, it’s abundantly clear that this album is a gem. Hearing Desmond in RVG’s studio is a treat, and hearing him play with Horace Silver and the guys is a pure joy. Since the music was recorded in 1958, it was recorded by RVG in both mono and stereo. Unfortunately, the only mono copy found was the record in Desmond’s personal belongings. The tapes were all in stereo, and so as a result, this release has the distinction of being the only authentic Blue Note stereo release of a 1500-series title. As I mentioned earlier, this music will be made available first as a limited-edition vinyl release. In celebration of the discovery of BN 1553, 1,553 numbered copies of this album will be pressed on virgin 180-gram vinyl, with deep-groove and authentic replicas of the ’46 New York’ Blue Note labels. The release date is set for April 31, 2021, followed by a release of the album on all mediums the following week. Special thanks to Ozzie Nelson, Blue Note Records, and the Library of Congress for all of their hard work to make this project available to the general public!