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Before 'Ipanema,' Stan Getz's Exquisite 'Quintets'

Stan Getz
Aubrey Hart
Getty Images
Stan Getz

When saxophonist Stan Getz recorded "Body and Soul" from The Clef & Norgran Studio Albums at age 26 he'd been playing professionally for a decade — ever since joining trombonist Jack Teagarden, who taught him a lot about relaxation, on or off the bandstand.

Teagarden was an economical ballad player and extravagant drinker. Stan Getz became a star with Woody Herman's postwar orchestra; his gorgeous sound stuck out even in that great band. Like other young white tenor players, Getz emulated Count Basie star Lester Young, a master of aloof improvisations that floated over a band. You can really hear his influence at quick tempos, when Getz does his take on Young's pet move, riding one barely changing note on "Feather Merchant."

Lester Young wasn't always thrilled to have an ardent admirer more successful than he was. "Stan gets the money," he'd grumble. But where Young cultivated a cool timbre like a foghorn in a fog, Getz's tone was luxurious. He had one of the most beautiful and recognizable tenor sounds, in a music brimming with great saxophonists. Stan Getz said he tried to take the reed out of his sound, and put his breath into it. His tone was soft but consistently strong all over the horn — one reason John Coltrane dug him. That, and Getz's way of obsessing over little phrases sometimes.

Stan Getz Quintets: The Clef & Norgran Studio Albums, a newly released three disc set, collects seven quintet sessions Getz made between 1952 and '55, with sidekicks including guitarist Jimmy Raney and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer. There's also a quartet session with Jimmy Rowles on piano, but it's really Getz's show. He likes fast tunes too, but the ballads are the real grabbers. Getz had myriad ways to tease a standard melody, caressing each note, and letting one impromptu phrase inspire the next; it gave his solos a sense of direction. He minds every moment, every detail.

Stan Getz the saxophonist is a master of poise and the poignant statement. Getz the man had a sitcom star's helping of booze and drug dramas, and could be difficult. He was known to disparage the idea his touching ballads concerned his own feelings.

"Getting sentimental? I don't think about those things," he said.

Not that it matters; after watching a knockout screen performance, I don't worry what Meryl Streep was really thinking about that day. Stan Getz had an exquisite sound, and played shapely variations on classic tunes, and bell-clear improvisations. Shouldn't that be enough?

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.