Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Stan Getz: A Blueprint for Perfection

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“As for Getz's playing, his style is instantly identifiable and internationally influential one for a decade even though he's only 30—was once noted primarily for its soft, flowing lyricism. in recent years, he has added increasing virility. And the singing naturalness but individuality of line; the quick, certain ear for harmonic patterns; and the supple time, remain. …

Stan is in the tradition of the players. He has not contributed a body of music—either written or unit-deep—as have John Lewis, on the one hand, and Gerry Mulligan, on the other.

He has contributed a style and can nearly always be depended on to stimulate a listener's imagination (…) with a demonstration that the art of improvisation still flares and challenges and excites.”
- Nat Hentoff, Jazz author and critic

Tenor saxophonist Stan Getz had it all – a beautiful, immediately recognizable sound, ideas as an improviser that flowed forth like water from a Bernini fountain and the seeming ability to execute on the instrument, anything that came to his mind.

Stan Getz was a blueprint for perfection.

So prolific are his recordings that you could spend a lifetime listening to his music and not absorb it all.

Getz seemed to have a proclivity for finding hit songs whether it was Early Autumn in 1948 with Woody Herman’s Band, or Moonlight in Vermont with guitarist Johnny Smith in 1952 and, of course, his 1962 recording of Jobim’s Desifinado and the related Jazz Samba album.

I am particularly fond of the many fine recordings he made for Verve in the 1950s with his own groups, including his West Coast quintet featuring Bob Brookmeyer on valve trombone and those featuring guitarist Jimmy Raney.

Also during this decade, Getz made a series of excellent collaboration recordings with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, trombonist J.J. Johnson and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. The latter featured the usually “cool” Getz in some take-no-prisoners exchanges with Sonny Stitt that found Stan holding his own in a more assertive “East Coast” Jazz setting.

Ironically, at the height of his powers as a player in the 1950’s, Getz left it all behind to take up residence in Stockholm for most of the second half of the decade. He latter resettled in Copenhagen from around 1961-62 before returning to the Unites States.

Ted Gioia surmises some of the reasons why Stan left it all behind in the following excerpt from his seminal The History of Jazz [p.286]:

“Despite the quality and quantity of his 1950s work, Getz became an increasingly isolated figure on the jazz scene as the decade progressed. There were many contributing factors to his fall from grace: a much-publicized arrest for attempting a drugstore robbery to support his substance-abuse habit; his decision to relocate overseas; his often changeable personality—but, at bottom, it came mostly from factors beyond Getz's control. Jazz tenor sax playing in these years was moving farther and farther away from Getz's cool stylings. Harder edged players, such as Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, were establishing a new model for how the tenor should sound. Getz, who was always a reluctant modernist—his embrace of bop mannerisms had never obscured the more traditional roots in his playing—seemed in danger of sounding old fashioned before his thirty-fifth birthday.

But in the early 1960s, Getz mounted a major comeback that encompassed both critical success [i.e.: his 1961 Focus album which featured Eddie Sauter’s string arrangements] and immense popular acclaim [his bossa nova recordings of the music of Jobim and Gilberto].”

Stan became financially comfortable thanks to the commercial success of the boys and girl from Ipanema Beach in Rio De Janeiro  such that, before his passing in 1991, he went on to lead some superb Jazz quartets with pianists Kenny Barron, JoAnne Brackeen, Chick Corea, Albert Dailey, Andy Laverne and Jim McNeely. For a time, he toured with a quartet that included Gary Burton on vibes and Larry Bunker on drums and late in his career, he did a number of guest recordings which included one with pianist Bill Evans and one with the vocalist Diane Schuur.   

Did I mention that you could spend a lifetime just listening to recordings by Stan?

Of all the recordings by Stan, to my ears, Stan Getz in Stockholm which he recorded for Verve in 1955, remains my favorite.

Ironically, in many ways, it is one of his most unassuming recorded efforts and one which is often overlooked to the point of exclusion as it doesn’t garner a mention in Richard Cook and Brian Morton’s The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

Consisting of 8 tracks each about 4 minutes in length, Stan’s playing throughout is an audio example of what I previously termed – a blueprint for perfection.

A large part of the artistic perfection of the music on this album is due to the work of an all-Swedish rhythmic section made up of Bengt Hallberg on piano, Gunnar Johnson on bass and Anders Burman on drums.

In a reserved and understated manner, they just swing like mad, stay out of his way and propel Stan forward thereby enabling him to engage in some of the most engaging solos he ever recorded.

After listening to how well bassist Johnson and drummer Burman lock-in behind Getz, it is surprising to find that both are rarely heard on the considerable number of modern Jazz recordings that were made in Sweden from around 1945-1965.

At the time that Stan Getz in Stockholm was recorded in December, 1955, Anders Burman was known primarily as a Dixieland Jazz drummer. He made the date with only a hi-hat, and snare drum – no ride cymbal, tom-toms or bass drum – and he only uses sticks on one track.

To call pianist Bengt Hallberg a reluctant modernist would be an understatement for as Getz told Nat Hentoff, who wrote the liner notes to the recording:

"There are times when I feel Bengt borders on genius. … He has ambivalent feelings about jazz though. He doesn't like the uncertainty of it, and thinks it's a limited form. The thing is he doesn't permit himself to get excited when he plays jazz. He's afraid of letting himself go that much; he's afraid he'll get hurt. And yet I know he could Bud-Powell it-up if he wanted to.” [Actually, I think that Bengt’s playing on this recording  sounds like a combination of pianist Teddy Wilson and Bud Powell].

Perhaps, another factor leading to the great restraint of the Swedish-born rhythm section on Stan Getz in Stockholm is that they may have been in awe of Getz who had received so much notoriety as an “American Jazz star” before he relocated to Stockholm.

Whatever the reasons, the moderation and self-discipline that Hallberg, Johnson and Burman bring to their backing of Getz on this album sets him free to soar. They just set up some incredible grooves and stay the heck out of Getz’s way.

The eight tracks that make up the album are all standards: Indiana, With A Song, I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You, I Can’t Believe that You’re in Love With Me, Everything Happens to Me, Over the Rainbow, Get Happy and Jeepers Creepers.

The format for each track is pretty straight-forward with Getz stating the melody, improvising for two or three choruses with Hallberg following and doing the same; Getz comes back in for a closing chorus of improvisation before the group takes the tune out.

Hallberg accompanies Getz beautifully, Johnson lays down singing bass lines and Burman hardly plays an accent while quietly swinging throughout; nothing flashy but all of which are done in the service of some of the most beautifully tenor sax playing ever created.

The music is so clear, beautifully accomplished and swinging that I return to this recording often and with a sense of anticipation because it epitomizes Jazz: the music seems to come out of nowhere, stay a fleeting moment and then disappear leaving a warm feeling in one’s heart and a little springiness in one’s step.

You can sample the music from Stan Getz in Stockholm on the following video tribute to Stan which features as its audio track Get Happy. It’s the only one that Anders Burman uses sticks on and he does so by playing them on the hi-hat in the manner of Papa Jo Jones and Davey Tough. You can’t use sticks on a cymbal any  more quietly than this and yet the tune swings like mad.

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