on “The Paul Desmond Quartet Live,”1975, A&M Records (also available on CD); personnel (“The Canadian Group”): Desmond, alto sax; Ed Bickert, guitar; Don Thompson, bass; Jerry Fuller, drums

Three of the most beautiful tunes I know bear the names of women: John Coltrane’s “Naima” (April 17, Day 100), Paul Desmond’s “Wendy,” and “Nancy (With the Laughing Face)” (June 8, Day 164), with music by Jimmy Van Heusen (comedian Phil Silvers wrote the words). But the stories go that Wendy and Nancy are “the other women” – they are not, that is, the muses of the titles, or at least at composition they weren’t. The stories go (and there is always a story or six in jazz) that the tunes were written for somebodies else.

It’s probably safe to say that, insofar as their performances on this album convey infatuation, reverie, being sick with love, these tunes are, finally, about nobody in particular; rather, they capture “a-musing” in general, the broody way of all flesh. As James Taylor suggests (making our eyes roll just a little), he might have sung “I feel fine any time she’s around me now” for a girlfriend forty-odd years ago, but only now does he realize that he wrote “Something in the Way She Moves” for his current wife, Kim.

Nancy’s turn comes in ten days, on Nancy Sinatra’s birthday. Today is Wendy’s, and “her” tune is my favourite in Paul Desmond’s oeuvre. It is said to be his most popular composition after “Take Five,” but I suspect that, sadly, it’s a very distant second. In any event, his rendering of it on this live album manages to feel both electric and palliative.

Of the many Desmond recordings I own, I listen to these live performances at George’s Bourbon Street in Toronto most often, never mind that Thompson captured them catch-as-catch-could as he served double duty on bass and tape machine. (Clearly he was not too distracted to play superbly.) I trust it’s not protesting too much to add that, while the album was made in the city I have called home for more than two-thirds of my life, in a restaurant I frequented at the time, my enthusiasm is for the music, pure and simple.

Which is to say that Desmond with Brubeck was rarely this compelling. A fair bit of it recalls Eddie Condon’s jibe that his sound puts you in mind of “a female alcoholic.” (This was the nineteen-fifties and -sixties, remember, when Condon ran his Manhattan nightclub. The crack always makes me think of Billie Holiday, and of Charles Lloyd’s slurry tenor-sax tribute to her, “Lady Day.”) Then again, Desmond had set himself up for the shot by claiming that he wanted to sound like a dry martini, a remark quoted so often, he says in the liner notes here, that “I’m beginning to be sorry I ever brought the whole thing up.” Typically of how he angled self-deprecation as charm, he adds that this album includes moments “which could justifiably be said to sound more like three dry martinis.”

Well, now and then, maybe, as with the perhaps coy oriental flight-of-fancy in the improvisations on “Take Five.” But clearly, in taking flight from Brubeck (who, it must be said, kept him in very lucrative work for a very long time, enduring all the hassles of leadership), Desmond has inspired the members of his so-called Canadian Group to play at the top of their chops. While for my money Bickert is the most intelligent, elegant, and inventive jazz guitarist in the known universe (if he’d been an American, the great Jim Hall would have stood in his shadow), I don’t know that he’s ever played more tastefully and imaginatively.

Desmond – boulevardier, ladies’ man, brilliantly self-effacing musician, possibly the coolest white man of our times – has featured in my writing, the playboy as father figure. In parody, he is the model for Des Cheshire, the alto saxophonist in Murder’s Out of Tune accused of murdering his quartet leader. I listened to this album day after day as I wrote the novel. Considering that Desmond indulged extravagantly in the intellectual chic of the era (ah, the good ol’ days when a Jewish bookworm was sexy), I was able to cadge a few of his jokes, including the ones that were true. See my “lyric” to “Wendy” (another of my IPod Poems), here, on my website.

As to the tune’s name, according to Rob McConnell (the big-band leader and trombonist) and Jenna Cox Whidden, one of Desmond’s many girlfriends, originally it was called “Jenna.” However (says McConnell), at some point Desmond jocularly (or not) renamed it “Pittsburgh.” Thompson told Desmond biographer Doug Ramsey that, then again, sometimes the tune was “Pittsburgh,” sometimes it was “Wendy.” One night when Thompson and Desmond were playing together in San Francisco, Desmond introduced “this young girl with dark hair”: “Don, I want you to meet Pittsburgh” – a.k.a. Wendy, the daughter, apparently, of another of Desmond’s girlfriends. Ramsey could not discover Wendy’s surname, and her relationship with Desmond “appears to have been short and intense during the period that Desmond had the Canadian Group.”

The chart: “Wendy” follows the changes to “For All We Know” (music by J. Fred Cools). Hear Nat King Cole singing a beautiful, pared-down version of the latter: Click https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPf0DnmOw3E

The assigned date: This recording was made one-and-a-half years before Desmond died on May 30, 1977, at 52.


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