My life as a saxophonist wouldn’t be complete without the early influence of Paul Desmond. My 8th grade band director loaned me Brubeck’s “Time Out” and I remember listening to it over and over again. That sound, so unique and pretty. In high school it become somewhat unfashionable to dig Desmond, especially as I worked on being a strong lead player. Cannonball Adderley became my primary model for most of that period.
Nonetheless in college I still retained a lot of Desmond’s influence, something my teacher Jerry Bergonzi would frequently remind me. A point of pride actually.
Nothing I’ve read says more about Desmond than this story told by Anthony Braxton in “Forces in Motion”
I said hello to him in the street before. He turned around and looked at me - I said, thank you very much for your music, sir. He said, well - thank you. And suddenly I understood everything, because while I was talking to him I was aware of the fact that he was way over here. I mean, he was not there, in the sense that we talk of there. He had already plotted out five seconds ahead of time what he was gonna do, and you could hear it in his music. It looked like he was a very slow player, but in fact he was making very quick decisions, and because he understood his craft so well his music has this air of easiness about it, as if it’s just kind of floating. But, oh, the man is very ahead, a profound thinker. He was far ahead of what you heard: what you heard had been edited completely, only the essence remained. Desmond understood how to get to the point quicker than most players ever learn. This is a lightning-fast improviser, who understood sound logic and how to prepare the event.
My personal favorite solo of Desmond’s would have to be on "Alice in Wonderland" from Dave Digs Disney. It’s like a perfectly-crafted composition, but better. Jazz Goes To College is also incredibly exciting. And Desmond’s insightful interview with Charlie Parker in 1954 is a crucial historical document.
I think I was 14 when I first heard Ornette. The Ken Burns Jazz documentary painted a pretty respectable portrait of him, and I was immediately hooked. Before I knew anything about Coltrane’s extended late-period music, Ornette was my first real entrée into “free” playing. I never thought for a second that what he was doing was childish or bullshit. Even though he breaks all the rules, no one could come close to copying his inimitable style. In this sense Ornette is the “Monk” of the saxophone. This early connection with his music sparked within me a fire for the advocacy of radical/avant-garde/experimental arts.
One of my most vivid musical memories came in high school when I bought a vinyl reissue of the album Science Fiction. I never could have imagined a more strangely beautiful opening than "What Reason Could I Give." Then the startling contrast of "Civilization Day" was like being swept off the ground. And the start of Ornette’s solo where Billy Higgins lays out was so overwhelming, I was in tears. I had never experienced so much feeling in any music. Side note: listening again reminds me that Charlie Haden is my FAVORITE bass player.
Ornette still sounds incredible. You have to listen to this historic performance from 2010 where he sat in with Sonny Rollins. He comes in around 8:30, and while bassist Christian McBride persistently maintains the Bb blues form, Ornette almost exclusively uses the E major scale!! The beauty of the whole thing is that it’s not long before Ornette sounds completely right, and McBride sounds COMPLETELY WRONG. No one but Ornette Coleman would and could do that.
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