The story of Stan Getz (1927-1991) has to begin with Lester Young. Before Young, tenor sax players seemed awash in testosterone. Their sound was full, rich, deep, blown hard out of the instrument's lower registers, with emotion pouring out in lavish swoops and honks. Then along came Lester. In the post-war 1940s, he invented a new way to play the tenor sax: softly, effortlessly, with no wasted notes, and above all, without drama. There was emotion, of course, but it was kept under wraps. Cool, in other words. And this approach didn't end with Lester. He became the musical role model for Getz and a generation of tenor sax players who aspired to coolness.
Getz had a long and remarkably successful career, stretching from the very early 1950s to 1991, the year he died. After honing his skills with the Stan Kenton and Woody Herman bands, it didn't take long for him to achieve fame as a tenor sax phenomenon. Getz's warm, pure tone, and the lightness of his touch, set him apart early. And with the remarkable sales of his Grammy-winning bossa nova albums, he achieved a level of commercial success seldom experienced by jazz musicians.
Stan Getz was a restless artist. His music changed and changed and changed again over the years, until, near the end of his life, he came nearly full circle. T.S. Eliot described this kind of personal journey in his "Four Quartets": "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." He could have been describing the arc of Getz's career.
Getz's early recordings, largely from the 1950s, are lyrical, beautifully simple. They're mainly improvisations on jazz standards, in which he concentrates on melody, on weaving countless variants on familiar themes. There's a lightness, a gentleness, even in the up-tempo numbers. The rhythm section is supportive but discrete, never intrusive.
In the early 1960's, Getz became a leading light in the bossa nova movement, a blending of American jazz with Brazilian rhythms and sensibilities. His bossa nova albums were immensely popular "crossover" hits (huge sales, two gold discs, four Grammys), but that doesn't detract from the artistic value of these recordings. Getz seems truly inspired by these Brazilian composers and musicians, and they bring out in him an open display of passion that's antithetical to "cool." Depending on where your own passions lie, you may find the best of the bossa nova albums among the best of Getz's career.
In the post-bossa nova period, Getz's playing took on a somewhat harder edgeno longer unrelievedly mellow, with less reliance on melodic improvisation, more on pyrotechnical display. He tried other jazz genres, including jazz-rock fusion, and played with like-minded musicians who encouraged his experimentation. This seems to have been a restless period for Getz. After two decades of recording and performing, was he worried about being considered a dinosaur of the cool jazz era? In an effort to stay current, was he incorporating the aggressive musical approach of John Coltrane and other newly popular tenor sax players?
Whatever might have driven him to the avant-garde, Getz eventually returned to playing straight-ahead jazz, with straight-ahead rhythm sections. Most importantly, he came back to his original focus on melody, which had been the core of his identity as a musician. His final recordings had a heartbreaking simplicity, as though he were saying, "This is how it should have been all along."
Stan Getz recorded over 150 albums in a span of four decades. In roughly chronological order, here are ten to explore.
Stan Getz Quartets Original Jazz Classics, 1950
In this album of mainly jazz standards, recorded in 1949 and 1950, the 22 year old Getz demonstrates the light approach and velvety tone that he would return to for the rest of his career. But there's more than just that special Getz sound on display here. In some of these tracks, Getz shows that he's already a master improviser, creating new melodic lines on the fly and sustaining the inventiveness for chorus after chorus. In "What's New?," he manages to stay fresh for six consecutive choruses, with no break for a piano solo. In "You Stepped Out of a Dream," played in a very high register, Getz's tone is almost wispy, as though he's barely breathing into the horn. Some will hear quiet introspection in this piece, while others will hear musical doodling. "Long Island Sound" finds Getz in a stronger mood, playing decisively in mid-register and improvising nicely on a tune that seems to be a first cousin to "Zing Go the Strings of My Heart." He brings the same satisfying approach to "Mar-CIA," which sounds very much like "When Your Lover Has Gone."
Stan Getz Plays Verve Records, 1954
Getz goes to work on more jazz standards in this collection, recorded in 1952 and 1954. Whether the difference lies in the original recordings or the remastering, the sound quality here is noticeably better than in the Stan Getz Quartets recordings. Getz also seems more in control during these sessions, more focused. Although light as ever, his attack is strong and confident, as in "Time on My Hands," where he begins to improvise in the first few bars and continues effortlessly throughout. He takes "How Deep is the Ocean" at the same medium pace, improvising easily and beautifully. "'Tis Autumn" gives us a full dose of Getz's unique tone, warm and buttery. He plays this one just as written, and that's more than enough. For a slow ballad with more improvisation, listen to "Body and Soul," in which he gives us chorus after chorus of inventiveness. Less satisfying is another slow one, "These Foolish Things," in which the improvisation is mainly musical embroidery. Although "Lover Come Back to Me" is taken at a gallop, Getz's playing is precise, his improvisations logical. He's not just blowing a fusillade of notes, he's telling a story. But he does even better with the medium-fast tempo of "With the Wind and the Rain in Your Hair," which gives him the perfect backdrop to spin more gorgeous stories.
Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio Verve Records, 1957
In Getz's earlier albums, track length was restricted to about three minutes in order to accommodate the 78 rpm format. By 1957, when this set was recorded, the long-playing vinyl record had become standard in the jazz world, and this enabled Getz, Oscar Peterson (piano), Herb Ellis (guitar) and Ray Brown (bass) to take long, juicy solos. But it's not just the length of the tracks that makes this set memorable. There's a palpable sense of joy in this whole proceeding, as though the four musicians were absorbing inspiration from one another. This is not a cutting contest to see who can play fastest or loudest, but a happy sharing of musical ideas. A case in point is the quiet, reflective "I'm Glad There Is You," with Getz and Ellis practically finishing each other's sentences. In the medium-tempo "I Was Doing All Right," Getz's approach is light as a feather, and Peterson picks this up with an uncharacteristically simple, and very beautiful, solo. "Pennies from Heaven," possibly the most impressive track on this disc, showcases Getz's gift for improvisation, with chorus after chorus of genuine inventionno repeating himself, no flurries of meaningless notes to fill in the spaces. "Bronx Blues" is an odd but delightful stab at playing an old-fashioned blues by musicians who aren't steeped in the blues tradition. That said, it really works. Ellis's guitar emits just the right twangy sound, and both Getz and Peterson dig in like old-timers.
Jazz Samba Encore! Verve Records, 1963
Getz seems absolutely inspired in this one, arguably the best of the half-dozen bossa nova albums he recorded in the early 1960s. The source of his inspiration may have been the compelling guitar work of Luiz Bonfa and the haunting voice of Bonfa's wife, Maria Toledo. Whatever the chemistry, it works. This disc fairly bursts with emotionjoy, pain, tenderness, playfulnessreflected though horn, guitar and voice. "Sambalero" is a nice, two minute introduction to the session. Toledo opens with a short vocal, followed by Getz and Bonfa, each doing the melody straight on. Then comes the track's highlight, in which Getz fills in behind Toledo's voice before closing with a nicely improvised solo. Things heat up with "Insensatez," which opens with a soft, sad vocal by Toledo, Getz filling in during the second chorus. His subsequent solo builds in intensity until he's wide open, blowing love, longing and anger out of that horncoolness having flown the coop, he's created a masterwork. "Samba de Duas Notas" is pure playfulness, from the opening interplay between sax, guitar and voice, through pretty solos by Bonfa and Getz, and then back to toying with the theme. "Menina Flor," filled with gentle joy, epitomizes the bossa nova spirit. After Toledo lightly lays out the tune, Getz does a perfectly simple solo, with Toledo singing softly in the background. Then the tables are turned, with Toledo in the foreground and Getz playing off her voice beautifully. A passionate solo by Bonfa is followed by Getz improvising on the melody. In "Ebony Samba" (play the track labeled "second version"), Getz blows with wild and wonderful abandon, Bonfa matches him in intensity, and then Getz plays call-and-response with Toledo.
Stan Getz with Guest Artist Laurindo Almeida Verve Records, 1963
Without vocals or familiar songs, this album feels more like solid jazz than Getz's other bossa nova efforts, which may make it more appealing to some listeners. Guitarist Laurindo Almeida is a proficient partner for Getz in this session, but with "improvisations" that are embroidery rather than invention, his playing seems like mere accompaniment. (Compare it with Luis Bonfa's inspired output on "Jazz Samba Encore.") And so this one is all Getz. Which is not all bad, because he blows beautifully on this disc. The high point in the up-beat "Menina Moca" is Getz's long, passionate opening solothis is Getz at his best, with chorus after chorus of invention. In "Once Again," it's again Getz's opening solo that shines. Cozily languid at the start, it gradually gathers emotion as Getz opens up. "Winter Moon," taken at a slow tempo, is a beautiful piece. Getz is quiet and reflective at the start, but after a brief interlude from Almeida, he comes back with an intensity that compares with "Insensatez" in the "Jazz Samba Encore" album. "Do What You Do" has more of a jazz feel than the other tracks, with Getz driving hard right away and maintaining a swinging mode throughout. "Samba Da Sahra" is a gorgeous melody, and it seems to inspire Getz to really take off in his final, passionate solo, replete with swoops, staccato bursts and a squeak or two.
Bob Brookmeyer and Friends Sony (Columbia) Records, 1965
Recorded in 1963, just as the bossa nova wave was receding, this collaboration between Getz and valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, accompanied by a covey of young (at the time) jazz stars, is a marriage made in heaven. Well, sort of. There's a strange discordance among the tracks, some of them hard-edged and "experimental" (at least in the context of the 1960s), others whispery tender. There are three tracks in the latter category. "Skylark" is a gorgeous bird that features some lovely interplay between the horns and a particularly beautiful interchange between vibraphone and sax. "Misty," that old reliable make-out song, starts with the horns alternating as they play the melody straight, followed by a feather-light Getz improvisation and then one by Brookmeyer that matches its warmth. Getz does the melody again with Brookmeyer filling in, and then the two of them close with some pleasing counterpoint. But the best of the tender onesthe must-hear trackis the slow, almost solemn "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." Brookmeyer makes the opening statement, followed by the most eloquent Getz solo in the session. He then fills in beautifully behind Brookmeyer, after which the two of them do an extended duet in counterpointthe most satisfying sequence on the track, and perhaps on the disc. To turn to the not-so-tender parts, most of "Who Cares" sounds like a very long, very loud drum solo accompanied by a few other instruments. If you can tune out the percussion, there are fine solos by Getz and Brookmeyer. The Ellington/Strayhorn ballad "Daydream" features a vocal by Tony Bennett backed up nicely by each of the two horns. The hauntingly beautiful "Sometime Ago," taken in a relaxed, medium tempo, opens with a cerebral Brookmeyer solo, followed by a passionate one from Getz. The two horns then engage in a few discordant phrases (rush hour traffic put to music?) before joining in a harmonious finish.
Getz au Go Go Verve Records, 1964
Recorded in 1964 with vocalist Astrud Gilberto and vibraphonist Gary Burton, this collection of straight jazz and bossa nova allows Getz to carry on a wonderful jazz tradition: a horn player doing call-and-response with a singer. The practice goes back to Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, to Lester Young and Billie Holiday, and, less famously, to Bobby Hackett and Tony Bennett. In this disc, the best, heart-melting example is in "It Might as Well Be Spring," in which Getz's interjections during Astrud's solos are tender, coaxing, confirmatory. That voice-horn interplay is also heard in "Corcovado," a bossa nova standard, and in the beautiful "Only Trust Your Heart," which features a quietly passionate Getz solo. Rounding out the bossa nova group are the often-heard but nicely done "One Note Samba" and the lively "Eu E Voce," with another outstanding Getz solo. Propelled by invigorating, complex rhythms, Getz is at his lyrical best on "Here's That Rainy Day," possibly the definitive version of this jazz standard.
Spring is Here Concord Jazz, 1981
It's been nearly two decades since the Brookmeyer recording, and the experimentation is over. Getz is back to playing straight-ahead jazz, as in this album, recorded live in 1981 at San Francisco's Keystone Korner, in which he is accompanied by just piano, bass, and drums. Think of it as the "Stan Getz Quartets" (above), but more assertive. "Sweet Lorraine" is a beautiful tune and Getz treats it with great respect, playing it as written for nearly two minutes, and returning to an almost straight version for his closing solo. In "I'm Old Fashioned," after a long, lovely opening by Levy, Getz delivers a relaxed, gently swinging solopossibly his best on the disc. Getz opens "How About You" at a relaxed lope, blowing chorus after chorus of melodic inventionlike the 1950s Getz, just less reticent. "Easy Living" was a Getz trademark for many years, and here he delivers it with his old, languid gentleness. Even his final solo is relatively hushed, and Levy follows suit throughout. Getz takes the same slow, sinuous approach to "You're Blasé," practically caressing each note as he plays the entire piece without interruption. Between "Easy" and "Blasé," there are almost 15 minutes of let's light the candles music on this disc.
The Dolphin Concord Jazz, 1981
This is the companion album to "Spring is Here," taken from the same recording date. In "The Dolphin," the title tune, Getz proves he hasn't lost his gift for melodic invention, delivering a long, beautiful solo in which he's alternately insistent, tender and soaring in flight. There's plenty of room on this disc for pianist Lou Levy to shine. In "My Old Flame," he opens with an imaginative solo without rhythm, and then stays out front for a pretty duet with Getz. The medium-tempo "Joy Spring" is a light soufflé compared with some of the spicier stews on this disc, with both Getz and Levy in a lightly swinging mode. "Close Enough for Love," played slowly, opens with an introspective solo by Levy. About mid-way through the track, Getz takes a long, lyrical solo that starts relaxed and gradually intensifies, and later does a splendid duet with Levy, sans rhythm section.
People Time Verve Records, 1992
In these exquisite sessions, recorded live just a few months before he died, Getz has cast off the in-your-face tics he acquired in his middle yearsthe hard-edged tone, the pyrotechnical flights, the honking, those little three and four note repetitions squealed out for emphasis. Accompanied only by pianist Kenny Barron, he's at ease now, reflective, his playing a distillate of lessons learned in music and in life. It's as though he has only so many notes left, and each one has to count. Has he come full circle in People Time? Yes and no. He's returned to the fluidity and gift for melody that was so appealing in his 1950's recordings. But he's not the same person. The People Time sessions have a depth, a richness, a sadness that the twenty-something Getz wasn't ready to achieve. In the slow, ruminative "I'm Okay," Getz seems to be disclosing his private thoughts, telling his story. (Does the title reflect his inner peace?) In the easygoing "East of the Sun," he turns the melody into a kaleidoscope, creating beautiful new shapes and colors, with Barron adding emphasis in just the right places. Getz gives "I Remember Clifford" a straightforward, achingly tender treatment, as if to say "This is how simple it can be." In "There is No Greater Love" and "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," he and Barron team up for some happy, punchy, straight-ahead jazz, Barron contributing a stellar solo in "Greater Love." In the reflective "Soul Eyes," Barron matches Getz's quiet passion in a lovely final solo.
There you have it, ten excellent Stan Getz discs to consider. If I were forced to choose just three, I'd grab Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio, Jazz Samba Encore and People Time. May they bring you joy.