Monday, October 18, 2021

A Focus Follow-Up with Eddie Sauter

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“I thought you might like to see the Footnote to the Spotlight review of the album in the 29 March 1962 issue of Downbeat.  It's an interview of Eddie Sauter by Bill Coss, and sheds more light on Sauter's thoughts on his composition, which supplements your blog.


A Jazz Buddy in New Zealand”

Per the above message, what follows is self-explanatory and casts additional light on Stan Getz’s 1961 Verve LP Focus [V-8412] from the perspective of Eddie Sauter the composer of this extended piece.

It’s also a rare piece in that it allows the composer to share his thoughts about how he went about his business in constructing the vehicles that became a point-of-departure for the seven pieces that formed Focus.

This posting is also accompanied by more YouTube videos featuring selections from Focus.

Footnote to “Focus”

          It seems impossible that anyone could be unaware of the importance of Eddie Sauter.  Still, some simple research shows young listeners thinking of Sauter sorta like Finnegan, both involved with a band sometimes involved more with sound than fury.  Few know Eddie Sauter as an important composer and arranger in the 1930s and ‘40s for Red Norvo, Benny Goodman, (Superman, Benny Rides Again), Artie Shaw, (The Maid With The Flaccid Air), Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman and Ray McKinley. 

          But, early in 1960, Stan Getz asked Sauter to write something for him, “Anything you want,” said Getz. 

          Said Sauter recently, “the inspiration was the possibility of just being free.  It was the first time anyone ever told me to do just what I wanted to do.  It scared me.  Especially because I was dealing again with a jazz musician.  You have to remember that, even in the days when I was writing for jazz bands, I was always an also-ran.   I think the closest I ever got was a second place in a poll.” 

          The result of Sauter’s writing and Getz’ playing is the Verve album “Focus”, reviewed above. 

          “All of the titles, you understand, came after the recording,” Sauter points out quickly.  “I wasn’t really concerned with a particular style of writing at first, but with finding an overall idea.  I knew I didn’t want to write a suite.  I thought that was too pretentious.  And I wasn’t out to write jazz.  I guess I’m not a jazz writer.  I haven’t been associated with it for years.  If it turned out as jazz, it must be because our environment has been jazz-oriented.” 

          “So, anyway, I began thinking about how to use Stan. The thinking took the time, not the writing.  Before I started writing, I conceived the compositions as seven different fairy tales- that’s what they are- are if Hans Christian Andersen were a musician.  They’re not songs as much as they are short stories.  I decided on that because Stan tells stories so well.  He’s a musical poet.” 

          Once he had decided on that, a short-story approach, Sauter said he decided to write for the string section used on the recording in a manner similar to the way he would for a string quartet.  Nor would there be a rhythm section (only one track had a drummer- Roy Haynes).  I knew we could make our own rhythm.” Sauter said. 

          “When we went into rehearsal without Stan playing, I heard something besides the fairy-tale conception I had originally heard.  Without Stan the music gave me an image of Greek columns standing alone, and Stan appeared as Pan, dancing among those columns.” 

          Sauter said the Pan dance worked out only because Getz is the musician he is.  For the first of the six sessions necessary to complete the album, Sauter gave him only a rough lead sheet of what the orchestra would play, similar to that which a conductor would use.  Sauter said Getz never had been faced with anything like that before. 

          “I had not written in a normal way for a soloist,” Sauter explained.  “The pieces had enough continuity and strength to stand by themselves.  I left a few holes for the soloist.  I wanted Stan to use the orchestra and what it was playing.” 

          “He felt unsure about that and asked me to write out chords for him.  I did and we played it, and it sounded awful.  So, instead, he listened carefully to the strings rehearsing.  Like all artists, Stan reacts to his surroundings.  He has a fantastic musical memory.  Well, let’s just say it worked.  He listened, then he played over, around, in, and with them.  “

          “Everything can be better,” is the typical Sauter answer to a question about his feelings about Getz and Sauter with strings attached.  But both men reflect pride in the finished product, exemplative of a stream without number -  stream of consciousness and conscience, if you will - the river, really, of much return.” 

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Stan Getz - 60th Anniversary of "Focus"

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

“From the start of his career, Stan has been a center of activity and attraction. His playing was always fluid and exciting. And as he developed his style and polished his technique, a lovely lyric sense illuminated his music. He had an unerring faculty for playing the perfect melody in this ballad improvisation. He made his horn sing, and the song it sang had feeling and conveyed a very real emotional impact.

Stan has always been a joy to hear. At peppery tempos, his confidence and nimble mind always generated solo excitement And on ballads, he was rarely less than superb.”

- Dom Cerulli, liner notes to Stan Getz’s Verve LP Focus [V-8412]

"I always left, at the back of my mind, a space for another part to be added... The way he reacted to the environment of the orchestra was one of the most gratifying things I've ever experienced.''

- Eddie Sauter, co-creator on Focus 

Like so many things in the Jazz World of the early 1960s, the 1961 issue of Stan Getz’s Verve LP Focus [V-8412; CD 821 982 -2] seemed to come out of nowhere [for the Jazz cognoscenti, no pun intended].

It was a time of great change in the music and new forms, styles and approaches to Jazz came forward at a dizzying pace.

I’ve always enjoyed this recording which seemed to sit in between the many quartet recordings that Stan issued while still residing in Sweden in the late 1950s and the yet-to-come bossa nova sides he issued in the mid-1960s whose surprising success guaranteed him a lifetime of financial security.

In his fine biography Stan Getz: Nobody Else But Me [2002] David Gelly, himself a fine tenor saxophonist as well as being a Jazz writer and critic of distinction, offers the following background to the whirlwind Jazz Scene of the early 1960s and the evolution of Stan’s Focus album with music arranged, composed and conducted by the legendary Eddie Sauter.

Far from coming out of nowhere, the project that ultimately manifested as Focus had deep roots in Stan Getz’s psyche dating back to his earliest years as a performing artist.

Focus celebrates its 60the anniversary this year which Dom Cerulli in his liner notes describes as “... not Jazz in the forms we have come to expect.”

“The final months of Getz's Scandinavian exile were largely taken up with a long JATP European tour, in which he was reunited with J) Johnson and Dizzy Gillespie. The live recordings, from the Stockholm concert of November 2ist, contain some vintage Getz-Johnson interplay, particularly in a high-spirited version of 'Sweet Georgia Brown', which amply confirms Getz's fondness for the open harmonies and broad melodies of Dixieland jazz,

This is not to say he actually plays in a Dixieland style, with Dixieland notes and phrasing, but whenever he gets into one of those old tunes his whole manner becomes easy and playful. He and Johnson even use the Dixieland format for the opening and closing themes of 'Sweet Georgia Brown', one playing the melody while the other capers and tumbles around it, then swapping roles. It was unusual, in those days, for 'modern' jazz musicians to do things like that, because there was still a certain enmity, dating back to the 19405, between modernists and Dixieland traditionalists, whom the former called 'mouldy figs'. Getz, needless to say, never indulged in ideological tomfoolery of this kind.

He may have been unsettled by his exposure to Coltrane , but there is no hint of confusion or uncertainty anywhere in this performance. By contrast, many established players were completely derailed by the Coltrane experience. Some, like Art Pepper, recovered later, whereas others, such as Harold Land, never quite did. If there had been some unconscious influence on Getz it would most likely have shown up in his feature number, Jerome Kern's 'Yesterdays', but this is absolutely pure Getz throughout. In fact, 'Yesterdays' is startlingly good, even by his standards. He infuses the piece with a strong element of blues, and plays the not-quite-doubling-tempo game with a masterly touch. The rhythm section of Victor Feldman, Sam Jones and Louis Hayes play it perfectly too.

The Getz family returned to the United States, with many misgivings on Monica's part, in January 1961. Before following them there, it might be well to consider what had been happening in jazz while they had been away, and how much of it Getz himself might have heard. Broadly speaking, there were four movements or strands of development: modal jazz, soul jazz, hard bop and free jazz. 

They interwove to a certain extent, but each had its identifying characteristics. The one which can be described in purely musical terms, and which had the most far-reaching effect, is modal jazz. The history of jazz up until the late 19505 can fairly be described as one of continuous harmonic sophistication. Bebop, as described in Chapter Three, was a particularly large step, but still only a stage in a progress which led, over the course of 60 years, from the harmonic vocabulary of simple military marches and three-chord blues to the edge of the chromatic universe of Debussy and Ravel.

As the harmonies grew denser, improvising on them came to resemble an obstacle course, more a matter of ingenuity than melodic invention. It was Miles Davis who found a way out of this impasse, first in 1958, with a piece entitled 'Milestones', but most significantly with his album Kind Of Blue recorded in the spring of 1959. Instead of being based on a sequence of chords linked together in a chain and moving briskly through a series of temporary key changes, the Kind Of Blue music is built on static harmonies -one chord for four or eight bars, followed by another. Each chord implies a set of notes, and these are the ones the improviser uses. The term 'modal' became attached to this system because the set of notes formed a scale, and the commonly used term for non-standard scales is 'modes'. John Coltrane was a member of the band that made Kind Of Blue, and for much of his subsequent career he worked with modal structures.

It was almost exactly a year later that the Miles Davis Quintet toured Europe, sharing the bill with a Getz quartet, judging by the surviving broadcast recordings, they played substantially the same set each night and it included two numbers off Kind Of Blue -'All Blues' and 'So What' - so Getz would have become very familiar with them. He may, of course, have owned the Kind Of Blue album, although he does not seem to have listened to records very much in his mature life.

Soul jazz was the name given to a back-to-the-roots movement among African-American musicians. This, too, sought simplicity, but sought it in the forms and practices of blues and gospel music. Cannonball Adderley and Getz's former pianist Horace Silver were among its leading lights and scored great success with catchy numbers such as 'Sack 0' Woe' and 'Sermonette’ (Adderley) and The Preacher' and 'Sister Sadie' (Silver). 

Soul jazz was, as much as anything, an expression of black solidarity and black pride at a time of growing racial ferment in the United States. By its very nature, soul jazz would have had no direct musical influence on Stan Getz, although he was to find that it had the effect of disparaging all white musicians by implying that they could not be authentic.

Hard bop was the converse of cool, and associated with New York and the eastern seaboard in the same way as cool was identified with Los Angeles and the west coast. As its name suggests, hard bop was the energetic and dynamic descendant of bebop. Its outlines tended to be simpler and a buoyant assertiveness replaced the edgy neurosis which had never been far below the surface of early bebop. The great figures of hard bop included Max Roach, Clifford Brown (until his early death in 1956), Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers (in their many incarnations) and, confusingly, the Horace Silver Quintet. Indeed, the dividing lines between hard bop, soul jazz and modal jazz were often more theoretical than actual. The leading jazz record labels of the time, Blue Note, Riverside and Prestige, tended to treat them all as parts of the same phenomenon.


Free jazz took many shapes, but the one most immediately likely to affect Getz was that played by Ornette Coleman. His music was free in the sense that it did away with the concept of regular form and conventional harmony, although it mostly retained the straightforward, swinging beat of jazz. Coleman himself composed some tremendously catchy themes, such as 'Lonely Woman', 'Tears Inside' and 'When Will The Blues Leave?', that at first led listeners to expect 'normal' solos to follow them, which didn't happen. Coleman and his trumpet partner, Don Cherry, created their solos purely by following a melodic and rhythmic idea wherever it might take them. 

Although it didn't apply to Coleman, there was a fearful amount of anger in many free players, so much so that their music often sounded more like therapy for the player than entertainment for the listener. Free jazz came complete with an army of spokesmen, proselytisers and ideologues, most of whom used the word 'free' to conflate the notions of artistic and political freedom. Since there was no way of telling if a free musician was any good or not, the whole movement degenerated into an adventure playground for pseudos and chancers. There is an apocryphal story about Stan Getz and Coleman Hawkins sitting stony-faced in a dark corner of a jazz club while a celebrated free saxophonist did his stuff. At last Hawkins turned to Getz and murmured, "Stanley, he's playing our song."

These new forms and styles had not suddenly sprung into existence during Getz's absence. Hard bop, for instance, had been brewing since the early 19505. But when they all burst vigorously forth towards the end of the decade the entire jazz climate changed dramatically. The phenomenon was part of the general shift in sensibility that marked those few years, a time when the post-war certainties were beginning to falter. Affluence might not go on increasing forever. The social order might not remain stable. The next generation might not want the world that their parents had wanted, and had striven so industriously to create. So, when Getz arrived back in New York aboard the Swedish liner Kungsholm, on January 19th 1961, he found himself in an environment that looked the same but felt disconcertingly different.

"It was common knowledge in the music world that the return of Stan Getz was not accorded the treatment usually expected for a conquering hero returned from overseas battle," wrote Leonard Feather, looking back on the event. Indeed, to begin with, Getz had difficulty finding any suitable work at all. "The cool sound and the cool attitude had given way, during those two or three years, to a concern for heavy, aggressive statement, to an atmosphere of racial hostility without precedent in jazz, to an accent on musical anger and disregard for fundamentals - characteristics that were not be found in the light lyricism of a Stan Getz solo."

As soon as he could, Getz had put together a quartet, consisting of himself, one of his favourite drummers, Roy Haynes, and two brilliant young players, pianist Steve Kuhn and bassist Scott LaFaro. This was the band with which he made his New York return debut, on March 23rd, at the Village Vanguard. The reviews were enthusiastic, but the atmosphere was, by all accounts, pretty poisonous. Bill Coss, who reviewed the event for Down Beat, was certainly aware of it. "There were in attendance the haters, musical and otherwise," Coss wrote, "who came to find out whether the young white man, who had long ago lengthened the legendary and unorthodox Lester Young line into something of his own, could stand up against what is, in current jazz, at least a revolution from it (or revulsion about it)."

From the few recorded examples available, the band sounds excellent. Haynes could not make all Getz's engagements, in which case his replacement was Pete La Rocca. The bulk of the album they recorded for Verve remains unissued, but there is one outstanding track, a blistering version of Sonny Rollins's 'Airegin'. In its way, this is as impressive as 'Shine' - it is as fluent and imaginative, but more angular and abstract, and does not have that 'falling off a log' sense of ease. But then, of course, it would be difficult to find two tunes more different in character than 'Shine' and 'Airegin.’ ('Airegin', incidentally, is simply 'Nigeria' spelt backwards.) One thing that does come across strongly is LaFaro's brilliance. For his first two solo choruses, Getz is accompanied by bass and drums only, and you can practically hear the delight Getz and LaFaro must have taken in the way tenor and bass swing along together. Getz had probably not experienced bass playing as sharp as this since the death of his friend Oscar Pettiford. But the partnership was short-lived. LaFaro died in a car crash in July of that year.


Getz's difficulties did not ease when he took the band to the west coast. In Hollywood, they followed the Miles Davis Quintet into a club and business was so bad that the proprietor cancelled the week-night performances and they played only at weekends. In San Francisco, where Coltrane was appearing simultaneously at a rival club, Getz drew very meagre houses. Looking back on this time a few years later, Monica Getz recalled: "Many true jazz aficionados had quit coming, being confused and bored. Only old friends like Miles and Diz gave him solace and hope and worried with him about the direction of jazz. It was heart-breaking to see his old defences coming back." On top of everything else, Norman Granz had just sold the Verve label and the new owners, MGM, were getting itchy for some saleable product, possibly something along the lines of Cool Velvet. But Getz refused all their suggestions, because he had an ambitious recording project of his own in mind. The roots of it went back a long way-back, in fact, to 1945, when he had played in Benny Goodman's band.

The big-band era produced all kinds of delayed-action results. Virtually all the great vocalists of the 1950s began their careers as band singers, and the experience gave them attributes that no later generation ever quite matched, such as rhythmic poise, clear diction and all-round musicianship. At the same time, the Hollywood studios were filled with instrumentalists who had gravitated there after years on the road with bandleaders like Goodman, Dorsey and Harry James. Just as important, although less conspicuous, were the arrangers. They created the sounds that became the background music of the western world, on film soundtracks, radio, records, and eventually television: Paul Weston and Axel Stordahl, ex-Tommy Dorsey arrangers; Billy May, ex-Glenn Miller; Nelson Riddle, ex-Charlie Spivak; Henry Mancini, ex-Tex Beneke, and many more. Towards the end of the big-band era, as the bands grew bigger and more expert, some arrangers became more and more adventurous, pushing the boundaries of conventional dance music.

When Getz was with Goodman he had been very taken with the arrangements of Eddie Sauter, composer of Goodman showpieces, such as 'Clarinet a la King' and 'Benny Rides Again'. Sauter, a Julliard graduate, commanded a huge reputation among musicians. When most big-band writers were sticking to the reliable formula of segregating the brass and saxophone sections and employing them to create blocks of sound, Sauter followed Duke Ellington's practice of blending the instruments in endless combinations, producing a whole kaleidoscope of orchestral colour. The musicologist Gunther Schuller wrote: "I don't think there has ever been a master of harmonic modulation in jazz to equal Sauter. His skill in this respect is certainly equal to Richard Strauss's in classical music."

The backings Sauter created for Goodman's singer, Helen Forrest, are among the most exquisite vocal arrangements ever written. But despite the esteem in which he was held by musicians, most of Sauter's career was spent as a jobbing freelance arranger, with occasional forays into composition, mainly for his own satisfaction. His brief career in the public eye came when, in partnership with fellow arranger Bill Finegan (ex-Glenn Miller), he formed and led a remarkable recording and touring band, the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra. In the course of its five-year existence (1952-55) the SFO had several Top 30 hit singles, including 'Doodletown Fifers', 'Midnight Sleighride' and 'Nina Never Knew', and its albums scored sizeable sales figures. The SFO was the first band to employ electronic technology on-stage to reproduce the sounds on their records, with Finegan simultaneously conducting and operating an early form of mixing desk. This meant that very quiet instruments, such as recorders and bass flutes, could be brought forward at appropriate points.

The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra was not a jazz orchestra - although some splendid jazz musicians sometimes played in it - nor a dance band, although it did sometimes play for dancing. The nearest definition would be something like '20th century American light music', but really it defined itself. Back in the mid-1950s, Getz had played a few times on the same concert bill as the SFO. "Eddie invited me to come out and play with the band. I came to a rehearsal and played the vocalist's arrangements with them, and it was just beautiful... I always remembered it."

The orchestra was vastly expensive to maintain and the costs finally overwhelmed it. Sauter went back to freelance arranging, but Getz's admiration for his talent remained undimmed. He was determined to commission an album of original music by Eddie Sauter, no matter what Verve's new owners might have preferred. "He was writing music for jingles for television programmes," said Getz. "I thought, 'Why should a man this great have to do things like that?' So I asked him to write something for me ... I said, 'I don't want any arrangements on standards, pop songs, jazz classics, or anything. I want it to be all your own original music - something that you really believe in.'"

"Stan is the only one I know who has ever said that and meant it," commented Sauter dryly.

It was decided that Sauter would write a set of pieces for chamber string orchestra, plus harp and percussion, into which Getz would weave his own improvisations. Sauter explained: "I hated the idea of a rhythm section with strings, and I also hated the sound of flat backgrounds with no meaning in themselves ... What I wanted to do was write like a string quartet with space to move things ... let them make their own time and rhythm ... I knew Stan would make it swing.

"I had to do something for Stan, draw something out of him and show him off. I don't like music that shows pure technique or memory ... I wanted to write pieces that had continuity of thought and shape, and had enough thematic strength to hold together, almost in their own right. And I always left, at the back of my mind, a space for another part to be added. 1 didn't know what was going to happen in that area. That was the hole I left for Stan. That he instinctively found this hole without even knowing it, is a tribute to his sympathy and sensitivity. The way he reacted to the environment of the orchestra was one of the most gratifying things I've ever experienced."

The title of the work was Focus. It was scored for first and second violins, violas, cellos, double bass, harp and percussion - 19 players in all, with the Beaux-Arts Quartet acting as its nucleus - and recorded on July 14th and 28th 1961, with Hershy Kay conducting. In fact, only the orchestra was present on the first date, because Goldie Getz, Stan's mother, died of a stroke on the 13th. He spent the seven days of shiva, the period of Jewish ritual mourning, in a drunken stupor, but roused himself in time for the second session. He was now faced with the task of recording the whole work in one day, half of it to a pre-recorded track with headphones clamped on his ears. This would be a difficult enough task in normal circumstances, but he would be attempting something that no-one had ever done before, improvising freely inside a fully composed orchestral work, rather like making up a concerto on the spur of the moment. And it would have to be done in complete takes, the format rendering it virtually impossible to cut and splice the tape. If anything qualifies Stan Getz for the title of genius, it's what he achieved on July 28th 1961.

Focus is, in effect, a suite in seven parts. There is no obvious linking theme, although Sauter did say later that he had conceived the parts as individual stories or fairy tales, "as if Hans Christian Andersen were a musician". Dom Cerulli, who wrote the notes for the original LP release, certainly thought the opening movement, 'I'm Late, I'm Late', called to mind the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. It is introduced by a spiky, scurrying theme from the strings, in the middle of which the saxophone appears, apparently hurrying in the opposite direction. The general air of slightly comic haste and confusion is heightened by the addition of brushes on snare drum, played by Roy Haynes. With the mood established, the three-sided conversation continues in the same vein, sometimes at delightfully cross-purposes. Getz obviously grasped the whole idea instantly and jumped with complete confidence into the unfamiliar context. There is no rhythm section, no changes and no beat, in the jazz sense. Instead of the song form in which he had worked all his life, there is simply a free flow of musical ideas. Take away the conventional structures, and the favourite moves that all jazz musicians use to negotiate them will not work - yet Getz still contrives to sound like no-one but himself. His musical vocabulary is so flexible that he can deploy it in any way he chooses.

He recorded two takes of 'I'm Late, I'm Late', both completely different, and when it came to choosing which one to use, Getz, Sauter and producer Creed Taylor simply could not decide. So they used both, end to end, which is why this piece is by far the longest at just over eight minutes. It's followed by the exquisite 'Her', dedicated to the memory of Goldie Getz. The mood is elegiac and the saxophone part more prominent here, although, by contrast with the conventional string 'pad' or 'cushion' effect, Sauter provides the strings with the lightest of textures. In one beautiful passage, Getz's tenor and the solo violin of Gerald Tarack, leader of the Beaux Arts Quartet, curl around one another with such subtlety that it is difficult to believe the two lines were not conceived and composed as a single entity. Because Focus is so unlike any previous jazz-soloist-with-strings recording, critics have tended to reach for parallels among the works of various classical composers. The names of Bartok and even Stravinsky have been bandied about in this process. At the risk of adding to these tenuous comparisons, I would suggest that there are moments in 'Her' which have the sparse, ethereal quality of late Debussy.

When Sauter spoke of "leaving a hole" in the music for Getz to fill, one might imagine that the orchestra would take the lead and the saxophone would add a commentary. But this is by no means always the case. In the third movement, a short piece entitled 'Pan', Getz treats the energetic opening string theme as an introduction to his own, even more energetic statement, so that he seems to be leading and the orchestra following him. His tone here is strident, almost raucous at times and, coming immediately after the softness of 'Her', it serves to illustrate the extent to which Getz had broadened his tonal range. The process that began in the mid-1950s with The Steamer and Award Winner, and continued through his expatriate years, had now brought him to a stage of expressive flexibility commanded by no other saxophonist.


Although Getz's part in Focus is entirely improvised, he did have a written guide in the form of a 'lead-sheet', or short score. In its simplest form a lead-sheet consists simply of the tune with chord symbols attached. In this case it was probably more like an outline sketch of the music, showing the melody line, the general drift of the harmony, some main points in the orchestration, dynamics, and so on. Using this, Getz would have been able to get his bearings, to tell when the orchestration would be dense or sparse,

busy or calm, harmonically active or static. His perfect pitch was accompanied by a virtually photographic memory, so one concentrated listening in conjunction with the lead-sheet was probably all he needed in order to fix each piece in his mind and plan his solo.

It is sometimes possible to trace very vaguely how his thought processes worked. For instance, the orchestra opens 'I Remember When', the fourth movement, with what sounds very much like a conventional introduction, before subsiding to a murmur, prompting Getz to enter on a strong, rising, lyrical phrase. Conversely, in the final minute of the piece, the strings play a series of heavy, forceful chords, over which Getz holds long notes. The general principle here seems to be that he moves when the orchestra is still, and remains static when surrounded by energetic activity.

By contrast, the next part, 'Night Rider', is a study in simultaneous movement. Sometimes the saxophone and strings seem almost to be contradicting one another, although Getz always manages to find a resolution. At one point, in an explicit use of the lead-sheet, he plays several bars in exact unison with the first violin. Although it is less than four minutes long, 'Night Rider' amounts to a little masterpiece on its own account, packed with spirit, wit and rhythmic variety.

But the most varied of all is the sixth movement, 'Once Upon A Time'. It tells an entire musical story in the course of its four minutes and 45 seconds, passing from a dark, brooding opening section to a kind of wild country dance. Practically all Getz's experience had been of playing in 4/4 time, because that's what jazz was based on. Focus presented him with the challenge of unfamiliar time signatures, which he took in his stride, and in 'Once Upon A Time' he bounces around in 6/8 (or possibly 12/8) as though to the manner born. His rhythmic freedom here is quite remarkable, with phrases cutting blithely across the bar-lines, setting up endlessly diverse patterns of tension and release. The seventh and final part, 'A Summer Afternoon', finds him creating a single, long stream of melody over the strings, mainly in subdued pizzicato, and displaying almost superhuman control of tone.

No jazz musician had even attempted anything like Focus before, and very few have ventured successfully into the same territory since (a rare exception is Memos From Paradise, a 1988 collaboration between clarinetist Eddie Daniels and composer Roger Kellaway). Getz considered Focus his masterpiece, and it's impossible to disagree with him, although it is just as much Eddie Sauter's work as his. They were very fortunate in their timing, too. A few years earlier and Getz's tone would not yet have reached the state of magical luminescence which makes every note he plays on the album so thrilling, and stereo recording would not have been available to capture the subtleties of Sauter's orchestration.

Focus was released in March 1962 and received highly favourable notices in the music press. Yet in the following year's Grammy Awards it failed to win the prize for 'Best Original Jazz Composition', that award going instead to a piece of impacted kitsch by Vince Guaraldi, called 'Cast Your Fate To The Wind'.

For his last recording sessions of 1961, Getz arranged his long-awaited reunion with Bob Brookmeyer. They were accompanied by Getz's current rhythm section: Steve Kuhn on piano, Roy Haynes on drums, and John Neves replacing the recently deceased Scott LaFaro on bass. Three of the six pieces on the resultant album (titled Recorded Fall 1961) are Brookmeyer compositions, full of those clever but unobtrusive little devices with which he habitually sharpened up small band performances, giving them shape and cogency without interfering with their spontaneity. At one point he even drops in a few choruses backed by a Charleston rhythm. A typical Brookmeyer tune here is the cheery 'Thump, Thump, Thump', which proceeds as a single unfolding melody, without the repetitions customary in popular songs, and inspires exactly the kind of sunny, freewheeling solos that one associates with the Getz-Brookmeyer partnership. They sound as though they have picked up just where they left off at the end of 1954.

The album was released quickly, ahead of Focus, in fact. It gained excellent reviews and helped reestablish Getz on the US jazz scene as he toured with the quartet. Coltrane was still topping the polls ahead of him, but his name was once again before the jazz public. Verve Records, meanwhile, were still looking for a formula that would lift him out of the purely jazz category and invest the name of Stan Getz with broad popular appeal. Their ideas seem to have been running along 'easy listening* lines.

In June 1962 they recorded him with a New York studio orchestra, playing the title theme from the hugely popular television series Dr. Kildare, hoping that this might do the trick. But, unknown to the record company, the trick had already been done. When the single of the 'Theme From Dr Kildare' came out a few weeks later, it was as the B-side to a number entitled 'Desafinado'. The bossa nova had arrived.”

Here are Dom Cerulli’s notes to Focus and you will no doubt note a heavy reliance on them in Mr. Gelly’s treatment of the album.

“The title of this album is Focus. The word is defined in Webster's as "A central point; a center of activity, attraction, or attention" The title was not chosen lightly. The center of activity, attraction, and attention here is Stan Getz.

From the start of his career, Stan has been a center of activity and attraction. His playing was always fluid and exciting And as he developed his style and polished his technique, a lovely lyric sense illuminated his music He had an unerring faculty for playing the perfect melody in this ballad improvisations. He made his horn sing, and the song it sang had feeling and conveyed a very real emotional impact

Stan has always been a joy to hear. At peppery tempos, his confidence and nimble mind always generated solo excitement And on ballads, he was rarely less than superb.

It is precisely this superb quality of lyrical improvisation that is brought into crisp focus in this album

Nearly a year before the musicians assembled in the studio for the first session of Focus, Stan asked Eddie Sauter to write an extended work for him. "His only instruction," recalled Eddie, "was' do what you feel is right' And Stan is the only one I know who has ever said that and meant it" When Sauter finished the seven compositions that make up Focus there was no discussion of what had been written, no rewriting, no second thoughts. Stan came into the studio and was handed a sketchy lead sheet of what had been scored for the orchestra of ten violins, four violas, two cellos, a bass, harp, and percussion. Not one note had been scored for him, nor had any areas been left open deliberately in the composition for his improvisation.

Although Stan is an excellent reader (he was well-schooled from the start, and his service in big bands honed this ability to razor sharpness), his part would have to be wholly improvised over and through the fabric of the compositions Sauter had written for the orchestra. As the ensemble rehearsed, Stan listened intently, pausing occasionally to get up, stretch his legs, and beam approval of the music he was hearing to anyone in view. "I just felt proud that Eddie would take time to write such beautiful music for me to play with," Stan said." It's difficult and stimulating, but it is so sensitive.

" I've always admired Eddie Sauter," Stan continued "When I was 18 I played Eddie's music in Benny Goodman's band We used to do The Man I Love and Clarinet A La King and a lot of others. All these years I wondered why he hadn't been recognized as the great writer he is. About six years ago in LA, I was booked on a concert tour with the Sauter-Finegan band, and Eddie invited me to come out and play with the band I came to a rehearsal and played the vocalist's arrangements with them, and it was just beautiful 

They had a lot of wonderful music in that band I always remembered it

"That's why I was happy when Eddie said he would write something for me, and I'm just knocked out with what he produced. You see, these things can be played with the string section of any symphony orchestra in the world and they make great tour music. But more than anything, they show quite clearly that the legitimacy of the past 300 years and the soul of our modern times can be put together and be beautiful."

The task before him was one that would call into play every bit of experience, taste, musicianship, and, particularly, creativity that he could command. He was to create a new composition seven times, using an already-written work as his basic material. And Sauter's compositions were definitely not merely backgrounds; they were complete compositions in themselves. As it turned out, the album is actually a musical hybrid, a series of compositions that were created by a composer, then created further by the improviser.

"In writing these seven pieces," Sauter noted, "I hated the idea of a rhythm section with strings and I also hated the sound of flat backgrounds with no meaning in themselves. I knew I didn't want to do it that way. What I wanted to do was write like a string quartet with space to move things. I'd let them make their own time and rhythm. It's not the same thing as with a rhythm section. The attack of a rhythm section and strings differs; one is sharp and the other is slow. And they don't blend.

"If it was supposed to swing, what is it that makes it swing? Although a rhythm section does swing when it wants to, this is not what makes jazz. Other things swing if they are approached correctly. I knew Stan would make it swing.

"I had to do something for Stan; draw something out of him and show him off. I don't like music that shows pure technique or memory. I wanted this music to have soul; to have an element of truth in it, not just a display. So, I wanted to write pieces that had continuity of thought and shape, and that had enough thematic strength to hold together almost in their own right"

"And I always left, in the back of my mind, a space for another part to be added. I didn't know what was going to happen in that area. That was the hole I left for Stan.

"That he instinctively found this hole without even knowing it is a tribute to his sympathy and sensitivity. The way he reacted to the environment of the orchestra was one of the most gratifying things I've ever experienced.

"He fitted his part into the fabric and made a whole. He has an unusual sensitivity to musical form and expressiveness, and a remarkable agility of mind He entered into each piece without forcing himself. He never imposes arbitrary things on his environment And he never stops being himself"

The remarkable nature of these sessions was seen clearly later on when all the takes were played and edited. On any given selection, Stan created new compositions from take to take, although the string parts remained the same. A fresh idea inserted in take two shaded it into a different mood from take one and take three. It was virtually impossible to splice takes. The editing consisted largely of balancing the sound of the solo tenor sax and the orchestra so that the subtleties both Stan and Eddie intended came into focus on the finished master.

On one piece, “I'm Late, I’m Late,” the only two takes were judged to be so fresh and so different, that, rather than scrap one, they were tacked together to form a single take.

Stan felt the challenge of the music deeply, and he responded to it magnificently. His performance on this album is the fulfillment of all the promise his playing has shown thus far in his career. It is clearly the work of a mature creative artist at the height of his powers and in unswerving command of his instrument and his talent

"Stan did all this lovely improvisation without ever letting his horn be a prima donna,” Sauter noted. "It just never occurred to him to show technical prowess or to upstage the orchestra. He fitted himself to the orchestra. This type of respect for music is very rare."

Focus is very rare. It is not jazz in the forms we have come to accept If it must be categorized, it can best be termed music of very high caliber— both written and improvised It is a constantly intriguing listening experience, as this writer, who has heard the complete work more than 50 times in the course of compiling these notes, can readily attest.

And what more can one ask of Jazz, or of all of music?”

Friday, October 15, 2021

Phineas Newborn, Jr. - The Once and Future Piano Wizard - [From the Archives]

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“There has always been a tendency among music experts, and by no means only in jazz, to harbor misgivings about technical perfection. The automatic-reflex reaction is: yes, all the notes are there and all the fingers are flying, but what is he really saying? What about the emotional communication?

Art Tatum at the apex of his creative powers suffered this kind of treatment at the hands of a not inconsiderable proportion of the critics. Buddy De Franco, of course, has been a consistent victim. Phineas has been in similar trouble, and not because of any lack in his ability to transmit emotion but possibly, I suspect, because of the listeners' reluctance or inability to receive it. Nat Hentoff, in the notes for Maggie's Back in Town, pointed out that Phineas has "harnessed his prodigious technique during the past couple of years into more emotionally meaningful directions!" True, though conservative; I would lengthen the harness to four or five years. During that time, too, the technique has taken on even more astonishing means to accomplish even more incredible ends — witness one ploy that is uniquely remarkable: the ad lib use of galvanic lines played by both hands two octaves apart. Today, bearing in mind that Bernard Peiffer is French and Oscar Peterson Canadian, it would not be extravagant to claim that Phineas has no equal among American jazz pianists, from any standpoint, technical or esthetic. He is a moving, swinging, pianistically perfect gas.”

- George Wein, the impresario who founded the Newport Jazz Festival, wrote these thoughts about Phineas and his music in 1956 as the liner notes to Phineas’ first album for Atlantic Records Here is Phineas [#1235; reissued on CD as Koch 8505].

“I was on tour with him for two months. He was as scary as you can get. They ruined him by making it hard for him because they said he was the new Art Tatum and nobody was Art Tatum but Art Tatum . Phineas Newborn Jr. was the New Phineas Newborn Jr. A Monster Jazz Pianist.”

- Terry Gibbs, Jazz vibraphonist and bandleader

“I remember when he showed up in New York in the early 1950s. He sounded so great.”

- Bassist Bill Crow

The “they” in Terry Gibbs; comments above were the New York Jazz critics who, for the most part, were very dismissive of Phineas Newborn Jr. when he first made the New York Jazz scene in the mid-1950s, although, to be fair, some greeted his arrival in much the same way as did bassist Bill Crow.

Sadly, twenty years later when  ROBERT PALMER published the following in  the New York Times  APRIL 21, 1978, not much had changed and a certain sadness and melancholy continued to surround Phineas and his music.

“When Phineas Newborn Jr. sat down at the Village Gate's piano last weekend, it was the first New York had heard from him in more than a decade. During the middle and late 1950's he was widely regarded as one of the most brilliant pianists in jazz. Nat Hentoff wrote that “he probably has more command of the piano technically than any of his jazz contemporaries.” 

In the liner notes to the first Newborn album, George Wein, who plays piano in addition to producing the Newport Jazz Festival and is not given to superlatives when discussing other keyboard artists, compared Mr. Newborn very favorably to the late Art Tatum.

During his period in the jazz limelight—roughly from 1956, when he first opened at New York's Basin Street, through the early 60's —Mr. Newborn recorded for Atlantic, RCA Victor, Roulette, and Contemporary. His music continued to develop, but he lost some of his critical support. Writers began saying his playing lacked emotional depth and commitment, that it was too facile and flashy. More seriously, there were personal and health problems, and Mr. Newborn returned to his home in Memphis.

He had a rough time there. At one point, just a few years ago, he was mugged and badly beaten. Several fingers were broken. Yet as soon as his hands were out of the casts he was in a local studio, recording material for his first album since the 60's, “Solo Piano,” released by Atlantic in 1975. And it was through Memphis friends, including the saxophonist Fred Ford and the lawyer Irvin Salky, that he was able to turn to full‐time performing. Since 1975 he has made several appearances in Los Angeles and the first of what promises to be a number of Japanese tours—he is well loved in Japan and recorded a new album there this year.

But New York is the test for a jazz artist and Mr. Newborn, who does not seem to have lost any of the dazzling proficiency he commanded in the 50's, was looking forward to coming back for some time. Tonight and tomorrow night, shows begin at 10 P.M. and midnight, with the South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) opening for Mr. Newborn who appears alone on Sunday 9 P.M. The Village Gate is at the corner of Bleecker and Thompson Streets. Admission is $5.50 with one‐drink minimum.

Mr. Newborn is especially looking forward to renewing his working relationship with Jamil Nasser, a Memphisborn bassist who used to be known as George Joyner. “He worked with me for four or five years,” the pianist explained. “before he joined Ahmad Jamal's trio. He had been working with B.B. King, and I introduced him to the jazz scene.” The drummer will be Ray Mosca.

This writer first encountered Mr. Newborn in Memphis during the summer of 1975. He is a small, wiry man with quickly darting eyes and a gnomish face, and although he is friendly enough, one soon realizes that he is painfully shy. He is one of those musicians who speak most eloquently through their music, and at this encounter he spoke eloquently indeed, rippling through absolutely stunning versions of standards and jazz originals at the grand piano in a recording studio.

This month, after his return from Japan, Mr. Newborn gave an informal recital for a group of music students at Memphis State University and stayed afterward to answer questions about jazz and about his career. The shyness was still noticeable, but so was a new brightness and interest in give and take. When he was asked about his family and early years he was positively expansive.

Mr. Newborn was born in Whiteville, Tenn., in 1931 and was already a gifted instrumentalist by the time he was in his early teens. His father, Phineas Newborn Sr., led a big band at the Flamingo Club on Memphis’ Beale Street. As a teen‐ager, the younger Phineas played saxophone, trumpet and vibraphone in the band as well as piano. His brother Calvin played guitar and his brother's wife sang and played piano and trombone.

Because he formed his style at a very young age, Mr. Newborn fell under the spell of the old masters, primarily Art Tatum, before he heard the newer sounds of modern jazz pianists like Bud Powell. As a result, he became an orchestral, two - handed piano player, and although he absorbed the harmonic and rhythmic innovations of the modernists easily, he has always been something of an anomaly compared with other jazz pianists his age, most of whom followed Bud Powell's lead and concentrated on right‐hand single‐note lines, with the left hand providing chordal punctuations.

Another explanation for Mr. Newborn's somewhat different style is the years he spent backing rhythm-and blues musicians. He played on the first recordings by the bluesman B.B. King, providing intricate filigree behind Mr. King's guitar and vocals, and performed professionally with the hands of Willis Jackson and Saunders King. “All during the time I was in high school,” he says, “I would go out during vacation time and play gigs around the mid‐South. Then in 1956 I went to New York and organized my own quartet, and we worked out of New York City, playing the jazz circuit on the East Coast.”

Mr. Newborn spent several years in New York City, recording prolifically and working often at Basin Street and Birdland, and several more years in Los Angeles before he returned to Memphis. Of the next 10 years he has little to say; the important thing is that he is back, healthy and playing superbly.

When he was asked this week about critics’ ‐comments that his playing lacked feeling—this is the only negative criticism his playing has ever received—he thought for a minute before answering.

“I remember getting reviews with that type of criticism in them,” he said. “It never bothered me so much. When I had Jamil and Calvin in my band, that band had a very nice feeling. We won a Grammy for an album we made in 1958; that was a comfortable group. Later, playing with various musicians I wasn't familiar with, the music might have come out sounding like it was lacking in feelings, I guess.” With Mr. Nasser back in his band and his return to New York, Mr. Newborn's performances should have feeling to burn.”