Two of the finest talents to emerge in the post-war jazz generation are brought together here for a happy, informal, yet earnest session of music-making. Individualy, Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan can each look back at a decade of winning jazz polls -- Paul as the alto saxophonist of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and Gerry as a baritone saxophonist who has led his own groups for many years, ranging from a quartet to a full-sized band.
In this era when television ratings, trade publication charts, and popularity polls have become impossible to ignore if one earns a livelihood in the light arts, it is rare to find such camaraderie between two star performers as this collaborative album exudes. Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan are not only old friends who came up at about the same time on the big-time jazz scene, but their strong feelings about the role of ensemble playing in jazz makes them ideal partners for a get-together such as this. There is never the slightest hint of a "cutting" session; always they work together toward the same ensemble conception, even though each is also one of the greatest soloists in jazz today.
In a way, this album is a recollection of the best elements of two of the most popular and musically successful groups of the middle 1950s -- the period when modern jazz first blossomed into large-scale public acceptance. The Dave Brubeck Quartet and the original Gerry Mulligan Quartet were the leading exponents at that time of contrapuntal jazz. The polyphonic duets of Desmond and Brubeck in the one group and of Mulligan and Baker in the other broke new ground and did it with high quality as well as spectacular flair. In this album, the saxophonists of the respective combinations have taken a similar approach and, with a clean sureness and an inspirational spark born of close compatibility and the ease of long experience, they bring the technique of improvisation in counterpoint to a new height.
But, at the same time, both Desmond and Mulligan are solo improvisers with great melodic gifts. The result is a series of sweeping performances in which something exciting is happening every instant, whether it be a solo of keen inventiveness or a duet passage in which each line stands up by itself within a whole that sounds like the work of a craftsman composer.
Informality in jazz often means over-casualness, carelessness, or downright sloppiness. These recordings are unusually neat and clean even though they are highly informal. There had been considerable advance discussion of repertoire, and each of the saxophonists brought along sketches for some of the tunes (although, except for some beginnings and endings, mostly Gerry's, they weren't used). But there the formality ceased. Final decisions on what tunes would be played and how they were to be treated were made in the studio. And here, as in the discussion that preceded the sessions, there was a Gaston-and-Alphonse deference between Paul and Gerry, typical of their uncompetitive relationship. "What tempo do you like?" "Oh, I don't know. What do you like?" Or, "You take the first chorus." "No, I started the last one. You go first this time."
There was plenty of relaxed fun in the studio during the sessions. Both Paul and Gerry are quick wits and quicker still is Judy Holliday, who was a welcome visitor in the control room. While no one kept track of the quips that flew about during the sessions, one bit is preserved in the title of the fast blues that opens the second side of this album. While it was being played back, one of the engineers asked Paul what the title was. "I don't know," he said, "it's a tune by Gerry." Just then the tape reached the climax of the counterpoint passage in the chorus before the boys come back to the melody. "We might have to call it "Flight of the Bumble Bee," somebody said. "Or," said Judy thoughtfully, "Blight of the Fumble Bee."
It is rather pointless to recite in these notes a roll of the passages that pass in review as you listen to this extraordinary album. Suffice it to say there are moments of rare beauty which will grow on you with repeated listening. The album is also a lot of fun; time and again, in the counterppomt passages, the boys will seem about to play an idea into an obvious corner, but they will let you hear just enough of what you might expect to let you know that they know that you know -- and then they're off on a wholly fresh idea. You can also have a lot of fun with your friends Ietting them guess the tunes which are never actually played In these performances -- I've caught quite a few people with Stardust and The Way You Look Tonight. But Paul and Gerry have a game for you, too -- do you have any idea what tune Two of a Mind really is?
But the real kick in this album is to follow the invertible counterpoint and the marvelously flowing solos of these two superb improvisers. The interplay between them reaches an unusual height in The Way You Look Tonight, when Paul as an afterthought added a third saxophone line (stereo owners can hear it in the center Channel) for the last two choruses of the performance. The way Paul and Gerry work together never ceases to fascinate, even when one drops into a distinctly subordinate role, as when Gerry backs up the last five choruses of Paul's long solo in Bee. It is a safe assumption that only an arranger of Gerry's caliber could have done so much so unobtrusively and with so few notes.
The rhythm section in these performances varied from session to session because the recordings had to he made in sessions several weeks apart during the summer of 1962; as Paul and Gerry traveled in and out of town for their respective engagements, so did the other musicians, so that it was never possible to get the same men together at the same time. In fact, the dates always seemed to take place as one principal was unpacking a suitcase and the other one was about to catch a plane. Wendell Marshall and Connie Kay play bass and drums respectively in All the Things You Are; they are replaced by Joe Benjamin and Mel Lewis for Stardust, Two of a Mind and Out of Nowhere; John Beal and Connie Kay are heard in Blight of the Fumble Bee and The Way You Look Tonight.
-- George Avakian