Paul Desmond was an artist who stood alone on the alto saxophone. His tone was light but full. His improvisations were complex but always lyrical and direct. If Johnny Hodges was the seducer on alto, Desmond was the cool intellect always willing to engage all of your senses.
From 1950 to 1967, he was the famous alter ego to Dave Brubeck's equally challenging but always robust piano inventions. The unprecedented success of the Brubeck quartet with 17 years of constant club dates, concerts, and sound checks, accompanied by a succession of airports, cab rides, hotels, and food-on-the run took its toll on the members of the group.
Desmond's only professional activities outside the Brubeck orbit were several recorded encounters with Gerry Mulligan and the recording quartet that he led from 1959 to 1965 with guitarist Jim Hall and drummer Connie Kay on a succession of albums for Warner Bros. and RCA Victor. When the Brubeck quartet disbanded in 1967, Desmond began a phase of semi-retirement. He recorded a number of commercially-oriented albums for A & M and CTI, produced by Creed Taylor, between 1968 and '74. The last album in this run was the aptly-named "Pure Desmond" with a quartet that included Canadian guitarist Ed Bickert, who was recommended to Paul by Jim Hall.
Desmond was accepting few live gigs during this period beyond reunion tours with Brubeck. He didn't need the money and he was physically spent. But an offer to play the Bourbon Street Jazz Club with Bickert in March 1975 proved irresistible. Bassist Don Thompson and drummer Jerry Fuller completed the band. Desmond connected with this rhythm section immediately and a strong musical bond developed on the bandstand that yanked Desmond out of his doldrums.
He later wrote of "the giddy euphoria of playing a club again after years of concerts." Of the inspirational sidemen on the date, he said, "Jerry [Fuller] is a charter member of a unique and endangered species - a drummer who is happiest while devoting his sensitive and intelligent playing to whatever is happening at the moment…Don [Thompson] is, of course, a walking miracle…he writes charts like an angel…he plays the right changes…his solos are dependably unbelievable. Ed Bickert is unique. Chords, for instance…when I work with Ed, I find myself turning around several times a night to count the strings on his guitar."
Thankfully, Don Thompson had the presence of mind to start recording the band at the club on his quarter-track tape recorder. Desmond was energized and the quartet became a strong unit with its own personality in no time at all. A week in March and two weeks in October yielded enough exceptional music that producer John Snyder compiled a stunning double album for A & M Horizon entitled "The Paul Desmond Quartet Live." Another LP on Artist House followed with more material issued on a Telarc CD in 1992.
These recordings are an embarrassment of riches. With a rhythm section that suited his every need, a renewed Paul Desmond delivered some of the best performances of his career. The repertoire consisted of standards, Brazilian songs, jazz classics, and originals that the alto saxophonist loved to play throughout his career, challenging himself to breathe new life into the material in his comfort zone.
Speaking of comfort zone, Desmond has recorded without a chordal instrument only three times in his career - on his 1953 Fantasy session with Don Elliott and on two collaborations with Gerry Mulligan in 1957 and 1962. On the last two nights of the Toronto sessions, Ed Bickert was called away due to the death of his father. Valve trombonist Rob McConnell was brought in to complete the quartet. The results of those nights are heard here on the fourth disc of the set. They are a revelation with Desmond playing more independently and taking chances that he might not have with chordal accompaniment.
More albums were planned, but they never saw the light of day. Now Mosaic has gathered all of the material approved by Desmond and the group (three hours of released material and five hours of unreleased material) into a 7-CD boxed set of The Complete Paul Desmond Toronto Sessions. Don Thompson has returned to his original analog tapes and mixed them anew for maximum fidelity.