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Eddie Sauter: A Wider Focus

Eddie Sauter: A Wider Focus

Photo credit: William P. Gottlieb

Chris May By

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Creed Taylor didn't want me there, he didn’t want me associated with Verve. He said stop, so I stopped. A few weeks later, Stan called and said, ‘How's it going?’ I told him they said to stop. He must have gotten on to Creed and had him reverse the decision, because a day or two later Focus was on again.
—Eddie Sauter
For many people, composer and arranger Eddie Sauter's reputation begins and ends with Stan Getz's Focus (Verve, 1962). The album is, indeed, a masterpiece. But it is only one of the pinnacles of Sauter's career, which started during the swing era. Nor is Focus Sauter's only collaboration with Getz. The partnership continued with the less widely celebrated Mickey One (MGM, 1965) and the even more obscure At Tanglewood (RCA Victor, 1967).

Born in Brooklyn in 1914, Sauter studied trumpet and composition at the Juilliard School. After Juilliard, he joined vibraphonist Red Norvo's band, first on trumpet, then as one of Norvo's chief arrangers. He went on to compose and arrange for bands led by clarinetists Artie Shaw, Woody Herman and, most prolifically, from 1939 to 1946, Benny Goodman, during which engagement he and Getz first came across each other. Sauter arranged several of Goodman's most successful early 1940s singles, and one of the highpoints was his arrangement of Henry Tilsley and Montague Ewing's "Moonlight On The Ganges." The track may not sound revolutionary in 2021, but Goodman considered it so progressive that he declined to release it for years.

In 1945, Sauter enjoyed resounding peer-group succès d'estime with an arrangement for Artie Shaw of George Gershwin's "Summertime," which he transformed into a small-scale, programmatic, symphonic poem. "It was issued on a 12-inch 78 and you couldn't dance to it," Sauter said in a 1980 interview for Coda magazine. "It was doomed commercially. But the audience is an irrelevancy as far as I'm concerned." (You can check the track out on the YouTube clip below. The trumpeter is Roy Eldridge).

By the mid 1940s, Sauter was well established amongst the royalty of American big band arrangers. William P. Gottlieb's photo, taken in New York City in 1947, shows (left to right) Sauter and fellow arrangers George Handy, Edwin Finckel, Ralph Burns, Johnny Richards and Neal Hefti.

In 1952, keen to take his work further out, Sauter teamed up with another big-band backroom boy, the onetime Glenn Miller arranger Bill Finegan. The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra was described by the protagonists as "a creative band which will combine dance music with mood interpretations," and it was specifically designed to take advantage of newly introduced high-fidelity recording technology. Time magazine called it ''the most original band heard in the U.S. in years.''

''We agreed that it would not be brass and saxophones all over again,'' Sauter told Coda. ''We'd had that. We wanted a different combination of instruments. We came up with one that gave us lots of latitude—from piccolo to tuba. It gave us space to make the lines come out so you don't always have a wad of sound thrown at you.'' Originally a studio band, in 1953 RCA Victor persuaded Sauter and Finegan to form a touring orchestra for promotional purposes. It was poor advice. The twenty-one-piece outfit racked up huge debts and had to stop touring in 1955.

By the late 1950s, with the continuing decline of big bands, Sauter was making a living writing TV jingles and arranging Broadway shows. And then, out of blue, Stan Getz commissioned him to compose the music for what would become Focus.

"I played his arrangements when I was on Benny Goodman's band in 1945," said Getz in a 1970 interview with The New York Times. "But by 1961 he seemed so neglected. He was writing music for jingles and television programs. I thought, 'Why should a man this great have to do something like that?' So I asked him to write something for me. He said, 'What?' I said, 'I don't want any arrangements of jazz classics. I want it to be all your own original music—something that you really believe in.'"

Sauter passed in 1981, from a heart attack. But his music continues to delight....

EDDIE SAUTER: SIX ESSENTIAL ALBUMS AND ONE LEFTFIELD TRIBUTE

Benny Goodman & His Orchestra
Benny Goodman Plays Eddie Sauter
Hep, 1996

This well-remastered twenty-three track collection of material recorded between 1939 and 1946 is the best of several Goodman / Sauter compilations. It includes many of Sauter's most memorable charts for the band, including "Moonlight On The Ganges," which was recorded while Stan Getz was in the saxophone section. Other highlights include Sauter's own "Benny Rides Again," "Clarinet A La King" and the swaggering "Superman," a showcase for trumpeter Cootie Williams. Also of special interest, "Cocoanut Grove," which has Charlie Christian on guitar and which eluded inclusion on Proper Records' near-exhaustive four-CD box set Charlie Christian: The Original Guitar Genius (2005). You may also want to track down Benny Goodman Presents Arrangements By Eddie Sauter (Columbia, 1953), which includes several high-grade tracks not included on the Hep disc, including Paul Dupont's "La Rosita" and Mabel Wayne's "Ramona."

Sauter-Finegan Orchestra
Inside Sauter-Finegan
RCA Victor, 1954

In their quest to create new instrumental colours, Sauter and Finegan sometimes moved beyond jazz into areas which are, most of the time, solid Third Stream experiments, but which, at others, border on the kitsch—kazoos and toy trumpets, for instance, soon outstay their welcome. Inside Sauter-Finegan, however, which inhabits the intersection of cool and so-called West Coast jazz, is solid gold. The lineup, performing a mixture of originals and standards, includes a woodwind section of multiple doubles ranging from saxophones to piccolos, flutes, oboes, English horn, fifes and recorders, an expanded percussion section, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, harp, guitar, piano, celeste, bass and drums. Some of the players are well known—trumpeter Nick Travis worked with Gerry Mulligan, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, baritone saxophonist and bass clarinetist Gene Allen with Bob Brookmeyer and Oliver Nelson, and drummer Mousey Alexander with guitarist Johnny Smith. The aforementioned Ralph Burns is present on piano. Other names are less familiar, but they are all ace players. Also recommended: Under Analysis (RCA Victor, 1957), an all-standards set which includes distinctive arrangements of Don Redman's "Chant Of The Weed," Bix Beiderbecke's "In A Mist," Cole Porter's "I Get A Kick Out Of You" and Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust" and "Rockin' Chair."

Ray McKinley's Orchestra
Borderline
Savoy, 1955

When drummer Ray McKinley stopped trying to have novelty hits and concentrated on playing jazz—as he does on Borderline—he is worth listening to. The album is a collection of little-big-band tracks recorded in 1946 and 1947 by Rudy Van Gelder (then at the start of his studio career) and features twelve Sauter arrangements. Inside Sauter-Finegan's Nick Travis is one of the trumpeters, Bud Freeman is on tenor saxophone, Peanuts Hucko on clarinet and Mundell Lowe on guitar. Six of the tunes are Sauter originals, and the covers include Johnny Mandel's "The Chief" and Jelly Roll Morton's "Mint Julep."

Stan Getz
Focus
Verve, 1962

What is there left to say about Focus other than to repeat that it is one of the great masterpieces of mid-twentieth century jazz, its stature unsullied by the passing years? Perhaps only that in a 1980 interview, Sauter suggested that the album was almost stymied at birth by Verve's director, Creed Taylor. According to Sauter, Taylor was against the project, wanting Getz to concentrate on more mainstream fare. "Creed didn't want me there, he didn't want me associated with Verve," Sauter told Coda in 1980. "He said stop the presses, so I stopped. About three or four weeks later, Stan called and said, 'How's it going?' I told him they said to stop. He must have gotten on to Creed and had him reverse the decision, because a few days later it was on again." The story has the ring of truth. Composed for a strings ensemble augmented by drummer Roy Haynes, Sauter's orchestration owes more to Bela Bartok than it does to jazz, and so was well out of the Verve's comfort zone. The label did little to promote the album when it was released in spring 1962, instead concentrating on Getz's Jazz Samba. When that album became a runaway success during the summer, Focus fell off the label's promo agenda entirely.

Stan Getz
Mickey One
MGM, 1965

Five years after Focus, Getz and Sauter reunited for the soundtrack of director Arthur Penn's dissection of urban paranoia, Mickey One, starring Warren Beatty. Getz had made a suicide attempt a few weeks before the recording sessions—which, as a consequence, were like those for Focus preceded by precious little rehearsal—and it may be that his frame of mind contributed to the intensity of his performance: Getz was often a passionate player but he rarely played with such ferocity as here. "What is the sound of terror? The sound of loneliness, fear in the city?" said Penn in an interview coinciding with the film's release. "For me it would be the sound created by Stan Getz." Along with edgy jazz and classical-contemporary, Sauter's big-band-plus-strings score also includes Polish polkas and old school rock 'n' roll.

Stan Getz & Arthur Fielder & The Boston Pops Orchestra
At Tanglewood
RCA Victor, 1967

Stan Getz and the Boston Pops? It sounds like it might be a cheeser. Contrariwise. The live-in-concert At Tanglewood is a serious affair. Its closest comparator is not the borderline easy listening of What The World Needs Now: Stan Getz Plays Burt Bacharach And Hal David (Verve, 1968), on which Getz plays beautifully over Richard Evans and Claus Ogerman's bland orchestral charts. It belongs instead in the same ballpark as Focus. Sauter's contribution to the proceedings is the fifteen minute centerpiece, "Tanglewood Concerto." Alec Wilder and David Raskin contribute other pieces. Getz's road band—vibraphonist Gary Burton, bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Roy Haynes, plus guitarist Jim Hall—are central to the proceedings. The performance opens with Manny Albam's up-tempo arrangement of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "The Girl From Ipanema," a showcase for Haynes (and surely a salute to his spirited playing on Focus' opening track, "I'm Late, I'm Late"). Then it is over to Sauter, Wilder and Raskin. And Getz. Sublime.

Jukka Perko, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra
Concerto For Orchestra / Focus
Sony, 2010

Few saxophonists have attempted to cover John Coltrane's A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965) in its entirety. Fewer still have taken on Focus. Indeed, Finnish alto saxophonist Jukka Perko seems to have been the only one, at least on record—British saxophonist Tim Garland's ReFocus (Edition, 2020) only used one of Sauter's pieces ("I'm Late, I'm Late"), with Garland writing another seven charts for a strings-plus ensemble, so the album (which is a cracker) cannot be regarded as a cover version, more an "inspired by" project. Perko not only provides an alternative to Getz's interpretation, he also shuffles the sequence of the seven pieces in the suite, with "A Summer Afternoon" the only one to retain its original, closing, position. Ten out of ten for nerve, but the album is unlikely to dislodge Getz from prime position in most people's libraries.

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