Alto saxophonist Paul Desmond (1924-77) is best remembered as the linchpin of the Dave Brubeck Quartet from 1951 to 1967. During that period, Desmond recorded several piano-less albums of his own with Gerry Mulligan and others, most notably, with guitarist Jim Hall. And, lest one forgets, Desmond provided the Brubeck quartet with its signature hit, “Take Five” – released in 1959, but which, surprisingly, did not catch on until 1961.
Once freed from Brubeck, however, the distinctive Desmond was wooed by producer Creed Taylor to record two superb albums for the A&M/CTI label. After recording his final A&M album, the Don Sebesky-produced Bridge Over Troubled Water, in 1970, the lazy Desmond largely receded from the music scene.
Not much of a club-date player, Desmond would reunite with Brubeck in 1972 for the Two Generations of Brubeck, playing the festival circuit on the East Coast as well as those in Europe, Australia and Japan.
By this time, producer Creed Taylor’s now independent CTI label had become the most artistically and commercially successful of all jazz labels. Taylor invited the ever-skittish Desmond back to the fold, where he initially made guest appearances on such CTI recordings as Jackie & Roy’s “Summer Song/Summertime” from Time & Love (1972) and Don Sebesky’s “Song to a Seagull” and “Vocalise” from Giant Box (1973).
The CTI roster also now included the Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo (1936-82), who had previously put out a spate of well-regarded records on the Impulse, Skye and Blue Thumb labels. Taylor had already issued Szabo’s CTI debut, Mizrab, in April 1973, while the guitarist recorded his CTI follow-up, Rambler in September of that year.
In an audacious bit of casting, producer Creed Taylor paired these two individualists – seemingly one’s oil to the other’s water – for Skylark, an album that shouldn’t work…but does. Tremendously well, in fact. It’s one of those things that sounds crazy in the telling but, in all due credit to the producer, is surprisingly magnificent to hear.
Taylor could have chosen – or overdubbed – a guitarist like CTI All Star George Benson or even Jim Hall, who would also come to CTI in the following months. Both are “prettier” guitarists, seemingly suitable to Desmond’s milieu. But if Taylor (who did not drink) was mixing a cocktail, this is a Long Island Iced Tea: it goes down easy, but it’s stronger than one might guess or assume.
Recorded over three dates in late November (with Gabor Szabo) and early December (without Szabo) 1973, Skylark introduces Paul Desmond to the seventies-era “CTI sound” and formula. There’s an original, a pop tune, a standard and not one but two jazzed-up classical pieces.
Desmond is backed by a small group of CTI All Stars including Bob James on keyboards, Ron Carter (who appeared on Desmond’s previous A&M albums) on bass and Jack DeJohnette – in the next-to-last of his CTI recordings – on drums.
Added to the mix are the backgrounded guitarist Gene Bertoncini, Ralph MacDonald on percussion (“Was a Sunny Day” only) and George Ricci on cello (“Music for a While” only). CTI’s in-house arranger, Don Sebesky, who had provided the larger frameworks for Desmond’s previous A&M albums, provides minimal but beautifully consequential direction here.
Although Gabor Szabo gets featured billing on Skylark’s cover, the guitarist appears on only two of the original LP’s five songs: “Take Ten” and “Romance de Amor.” (Szabo returns, however, for bonus tracks issued decades later on CD.) The great Gene Bertoncini (b. 1937), on the other hand, appears throughout – but hardly ever in a solo capacity.
If this seems odd, it’s worth remembering Creed Taylor’s first recording with Szabo – Gary McFarland’s 1965 album The In Sound (Verve) – also paired the Hungarian guitarist with a second guitar: no less than the great Kenny Burrell, who, at that time, was much better known and, himself, a particularly well-documented soloist.
Perhaps Taylor felt that, while Szabo may have been a strong and compelling soloist, he was not necessarily the ideal accompanist or rhythm guitarist for a session – particularly for someone of Paul Desmond’s disposition or demeanor. Szabo himself likely picked up on Taylor’s insight on The In Sound as he recruited guitarist Jimmy Stewart to join his own memorable quintet, which unfortunately only lasted from 1967 to 1969.
Suffice it to say, the two guitarists work (or, more accurately, are recorded) superbly well together on Skylark. But, more important, there is an unexpected kismet in Desmond’s sweet and Szabo’s sour, a mix that makes Skylark a highlight in both the saxophonist’s and especially the guitarist’s discographies.
Skylark opens with what is probably Paul Desmond’s second-best-known composition of all time. Like the enduring Dave Brubeck Quartet hit “Take Five,” its sequel, “Take Ten,” is also written in 5/4 time, or, more to the point here, 10/8 time. Desmond originally wrote and recorded “Take Ten” for his 1963 solo album of the same name in a superb quartet performance featuring Jim Hall on guitar.
Here, “Take Ten” is delivered by the core quintet – and, to these ears – in a darker, more deeply considered performance (Bertonicini seems to sit this one out). Szabo provides the rhythm support, aided in no small measure by Bob James’ Fender Rhodes. Desmond solos as mellifluously as ever while Szabo takes a hypnotic solo that recalls his spellbinding glory days.
Following the intoxicating opener, the nine-plus-minute “Romance de Amor” makes for the album’s most compelling highlight. It is an unusual choice, but a superb one. It also spotlights the best work the group and its individuals offer on the record.
”Romance de Amor” is believed to have been written for solo guitar in the late 19th century. The Spanish or South American piece is considered “Traditional” as its origins have long been in dispute.
The three-part structure of the song is superbly and subtly arranged by Don Sebesky as follows: 1 = Gene Bertoncini plays the Spanish section on solo guitar. The line is repeated by Gabor Szabo with Bertoncini, Ron Carter on bass and raga-like percussion (00:00 to 00:57). 2 = Paul Desmond with rhythm section in a bossa mode (000:58 to 01:23). 3 = Sebesky omits the original theme’s third part for a more dramatic raga-like structure that Desmond beautifully improvises over (01:24 to 02:29).
Desmond continues to improvise over changes to sections 2 and 3 (02:29 to 03:20) – while Szabo strikes several notes around the 02:55 mark. Szabo solos hypnotically over a vamp that riffs off a minor chord stoked by Carter’s bass with occasional keyboard and drum swells (03:21 to 05:48).
Bob James takes a laid-back solo with Carter on bass and DeJohnette supporting on an intuitive heartbeat bass drum. This eventually leads to sparring with Szabo on guitar (05:48 to 08:08). Desmond returns to riff off section 2 until the group closes out the tune by returning to the first section. It is a marvelous and memorable performance.
Once upon a time, this listener would let the first side of this record play through to the end, then pick up the needle and play it all over again. For hours. Whatever one may assume about the Desmond-Szabo pairing is instantly dispelled by the simpatico aural chemistry they make over these two songs. Desmond shines in this electric context, while, for Szabo, these pieces (coupled with the first side of his own CTI album Mizrab) represent the very best of the guitarist’s work in the seventies.
Flipping the original record over, however, was always a bit of a jolt. There is a sense as though this side comes from another album altogether. Or, at least another recording session – which it pretty much was.
First of all, despite his co-star billing, Szabo is gone. It’s difficult to say why: bonus tracks to a CD version of Skylark released years later reveal the guitarist recorded perfectly fine takes of at least two of the album’s three remaining tracks. But…
It was likely the sort of thing that soured Szabo on CTI (in a DownBeat Blindfold Test the guitarist later slyly referred to Creed Taylor as “my current landlord”). But given Taylor’s sensibilities, the producer may have struggled a bit more than usual with what to do with – or for – the guitarist, particularly as a sideman or in this Desmond situation.
Side two opens with a breezy bossa take of Paul Simon’s Jamaican-lite “Was a Sunny Day.” The Simon original featured fellow CTI recording artist Airto (Moriera) – who appeared on the earlier Desmond albums Summertime and From the Hot Afternoon, but, for whatever reason, is not heard here.
The song originally factored on Simon’s 1973 album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, an album that also featured the original version of “Take Me to the Mardi Gras,” which Bob James would, of course, turn into a sample classic on his 1975 CTI album Bob James Two.
In another unique programming choice, Skylark takes up “Music for a While” by the English Baroque composer Henry Purcell (1659–95). Originally scored for soprano (voice), harpsicord and bass viol, “Music for a While” is the second of four movements originally written as incidental music for John Dryden’s play based on the story of Sophocles’ Oedipus.
But a second classical theme on one jazz album was maybe a bridge too far – and likely sabotages the saxophonist, however beautifully he navigates this sea’s particular chop.
”Music for a While” opens with a dreamy, echo-y Fender Rhodes trill (similar to the one James used for Eric Gale’s “Forecast” earlier that year) that leads into the main melody. George Ricci – picking up the part originally intended for Szabo – is brought in on cello to do a lovely pas de deux with Desmond’s alto. Sebesky sets the song in a typical Spanish mode before lurching into the delightful changes of “Django.” It’s a lovely performance, but – rather oddly – mostly unmemorable.
Surprisingly, Desmond had not previously recorded Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark.” Even more remarkably, Dave Brubeck – in or out of the original quartet – never recorded “Skylark” either.
Here, “Skylark” opens as a duet between Desmond and Gene Bertoncini before yielding to the quartet with Carter and DeJohnette. In the original album version, Bob James comes in for a pretty but seemingly tentative-sounding piano solo (perhaps Dave Brubeck was whispering in his ear). The piano solo heard here supplants a perfectly wonderful Jim Hall-esque solo delivered by Bertoncini on the “Skylark (alt take),” first released in 1997.
There was likely a version of “Skylark” recorded that featured Gabor Szabo instead of the prettier and less rough-hewn-sounding Bertoncini. But, if so, it has not yet been heard. “Skylark” seems just the sort of thing Szabo would have gravitated toward, yet it never factored in his own repertoire. If, indeed, Szabo recorded the tune here, he was no doubt insulted by the slight this Skylark delivered.
Sebesky would go on to arrange “Skylark” again for CTI albums by Roland Hanna (1982) and Jim Hall (1992). He also arranged a version of “Skylark” for a 1980 album by Italian flugelhorn player Franco Ambrosetti that featured Skylark bassist Ron Carter.
Skylark was released in May 1974 to generally favorable reviews that mostly commented on the distinctive alto saxophonist’s tone. To wit:
“The altoist works in a coolly relaxed environment, almost icy but nonetheless in a constant state of fluid motion” (Billboard). “His feathery tone is unmistakable. Light and airy and filled with personal style, especially ‘Was A Sunny Day’" (Walrus). “Desmond is an outstanding player whose work is more soothing than it is vital…[with] an excellent rhythm section playing a variety of material, mostly of the dreamy kind” (Asbury Park Sunday Press).
DownBeat’s Charles Mitchell awarded the album five stars in the music magazine’s July 18, 1974, issue (the same issue that gave Szabo’s own CTI album Rambler a mere two and a half stars): “What a beauty! The only imperfect thing about this LP is that it is far too short. But don’t let that fact deter you from experiencing the poetry of Desmond and Co. – if the album was half as long, it’d still be worth it.” The incisive review also notes:
"The teaming of Desmond and Gabor Szabo is a natural. Both have a subdued, liquid quality to their styles, which complement each other frighteningly well. Both solo with lyrical fire at low levels of volume, and both choose their notes elegantly and judiciously. Add a gracefully introspective pianist, a quality ‘second’ guitarist, and one of the three best bassists in jazz and the result is music uncluttered, complete in itself, and soulfully beautiful."
In this writer’s opinion, Skylark - in full or in part – is an artistic success that is nicely crafted by producer Creed Taylor and even more beautifully delivered by the musicians and soloists who made this possible. But, in the end, the album likely appealed only to fans of the saxophonist or the guitarist. (I was not able to verify how well the album performed.)
Fans of Desmond (and possibly Desmond himself) may not have been so accepting of Szabo, despite however magical their brief communion may have been. Skylark is, however, surely one of the best of the few records the Hungarian guitarist ever worked on as a sideman. The DownBeat review aptly concludes:
"Skylark happens to suit any mood you’re in, because it goes far beyond simple mood music, a label often slapped on both Desmond and Szabo in the past. By now we should be hip to the fact that intense doesn’t necessarily equal loud; but it’s hard for us to remember that in these days of Mahavishnu and Cobham. We need albums like Skylark to remind us."
Skylark was first issued on CD in 1988 with a “bonus track” recording of Victor Herbert and Al Dubin’s “Indian Summer” that had not appeared on the original LP. The piece is a quartet feature for Desmond with Gene Bertoncini (very much in Jim Hall mode), Ron Carter (who solos) and Jack DeJohnette. This warm, sunny waltz was probably recorded at the December session – and likely left off the original album because it calls attention to Szabo’s absence.
The slightly longer “alternate take” of “Indian Summer” – first issued as a “bonus track” on the 1997 CD release of Skylark - was, however, no doubt recorded first, as it features Gabor Szabo (who does not solo) supporting Desmond rather than Bertoncini. It is perfectly serviceable, particularly showcasing Szabo’s finesse as a fine accompaniment. It’s therefore a riddle as to how or why it was kept off the original release.
Like “Indian Summer (alt take),” the “alternate take” of “Music for a While” is also a quartet piece with Szabo in for Bertoncini. Again, Szabo doesn’t solo here. But the song’s first appearance came not on the 1988 CD release of Skylark but rather on the 1988 compilation CD Classics in Jazz. “Music for a While (alt take)” finally appeared on the 1997 CD release of Skylark - which was reissued as is in 2003 – and, to this day, remains the most comprehensive version of Skylark available to date.
Paul Desmond would record one more album for CTI – the straight quartet of Pure Desmond (1974), also with Ron Carter – while reuniting with Jim Hall for the guitarist’s landmark CTI debut Concierto (1975 – also arranged by Don Sebesky). The alto saxophonist died shortly thereafter of lung cancer on May 30, 1977. He was only 52 years old.
Likewise, Gabor Szabo recorded only one more record for the CTI subsidiary label Salvation, Macho (1975), which was produced and arranged by Bob James (the last of their collaborations together). After several more records on other labels, the guitarist died of liver and kidney failure in his native Hungary on February 26, 1982. He was only 45 years old.
Fortunately, as of this writing, Bob James, Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette and Gene Bertoncini are all still with us and, happily, still working.
About the Cover: The arresting photograph on the cover of Skylark is so striking and unusual that it almost seems like an illustration – or, an illusion or a dream image. Its Zen quality suggests a flower made of hearts beating out waves of light.
The 1974 photograph, titled “Flower in Water,” is by the renowned photographer Pete Turner (1934-2017), the artist behind many of CTI’s iconic covers – notably the ironic icicles cover of Desmond’s 1969 album Summertime. Although the premise, noted in the photo’s title, is simple, the execution was a bit more of an experiment for the photographer than is widely known:
“I saw this flower floating in a man-made pool outdoors,” said Turner in his 2006 book The Color of Jazz, “and the sunlight was creating highlights on the water, like musical notes. A slow shutter speed can blur the image, but it can also blur the highlights while the black background stays the same. So I tried different shutter speeds and all the factors played in, like the wind, the movement of the flower, and the mystery of not knowing what it would look like till the film came back.”
The sense here is that “Flower in Water” taps nicely into Johnny Mercer’s lyric to “Skylark.” Certainly, the flower and its waves of light would appeal to the songbird of the title. But the “flower in water” also alludes to “a meadow in the mist / Where someone’s waiting to be kissed.”
Or, this: “a valley green with spring / Where my heart can go a-journeying.” Or, the wonderful verse that goes: ”And in your lonely flight / Haven’t you heard the music of the night? / Wonderful music, faint as the will o’ the wisp / Crazy as a loon / Sad as a gypsy serenading the moon.”