Stan Getz means different things to different music fans. The jazz great, whose death 20 years ago is being commemorated by the 2011 Edinburgh Jazz Festival, is best known the world over as the saxophonist featured on one of the biggest-selling jazz singles of all time, the The Girl From Ipanema. Certainly that gorgeous track highlights the hallmarks of the Getz sound – his lyricism, and a sort of yearning, ethereal tone – as well as his swinging style, but the Brazilian bossa nova phase was one of several highly productive, and hugely influential, periods in a four-decade career which is represented by various concerts, plus a panel discussion, in this year’s jazz festival.
Born in 1927, Getz was the son of Ukrainian parents who had fled the pogroms. He was raised in the Bronx, in New York, and took up saxophone when he was 13 years old, having already demonstrated that he had a terrific ear for music by picking out tunes on the piano or the harmonica and committing a raft of Benny Goodman’s clarinet solos to memory. (By the time he was 19, he was working for Goodman.)
Getz began his professional career at the age of just 16, when he went on the road with the great trombonist Jack Teagarden. Stints with the bands led by Stan Kenton and Jimmy Dorsey followed, before the Goodman one which was followed by his celebrated tenure, from 1946-1950, as one of the quartet of saxophonists known as the Four Brothers within Woody Herman’s Second Herd band.
It was Getz’s spare and langorous solo on their 1948 recording of Early Autumn that made his name as a major new improvising talent. This breakthrough period of his career will be reflected at the jazz festival by a concert celebrating the Four Brothers and featuring the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra under the direction of clarinettist and tenor saxophonist Ken Peplowski.
After quitting Herman’s band in 1950, Getz began to lead his own small groups and became one of the most popular saxophonists of the decade, thanks in part to a series of peerless albums, including Stan Getz Plays and Stan Getz and The Oscar Peterson Trio, which, says Scottish tenor saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski, was a major influence on him.
“That album just blows me away – it doesn’t get any better,” he says. “His playing is so melodic, you can imagine a voice singing these lines. There’s a kind of tenderness in his playing, an emotional quality that you didn’t hear much when I was learning to play – it was all Michael Brecker, and a much more about a kind of aggressive soloing. I was much more drawn to the 1950s recordings by Stan Getz.”
For the jazz festival, however, Wiszniewski is headlining a concert which celebrates another landmark album in the tenor man’s career and is that rare treat – a jazz concert with strings.
Focus, recorded 50 years ago, just before the bossa nova phenomenon exploded, has long been a cult LP and stands out in the Getz canon not just because it’s his strings album, but also because it’s not as easily accessible as the more mainstream bossa or big band output. Festival director Roger Spence says: “This album had some tough music in it – I’d compare it to something by Bartok – and I believe that it’s probably the greatest of all the recorded collaborations between jazz soloists and string ensembles.”
On the original album, a full string section played arrangements by the master arranger Eddie Sauter. It took, says Wiszniewski, months for the scores to be tracked down (from Yale University), and it’s taken almost as long to figure out how to pare them down for a quartet – luckily his future father-in-law, Ian Budd, is the principal viola in the RSNO, and was able to help – and how to handle the Getz part which, says Wiszniewski, is entirely improvised. “There are some chords there but what he’s going by are cues from the strings. He’s taken some themes from the strings and he’s playing them and developing them as well. So it is quite an organic piece of music.”
Getz himself claimed that it was his proudest achievement in the recording studio because – due to the sudden death of his mother – he had missed the session with the orchestra and had to record his part separately. It sounds as if the strings and the jazz star are interacting and responding to each other when you listen to the album; in fact, Getz was hearing the pre-recorded strings through headphones – and was struggling not to be thrown by his inability to hear his own sax.
In order to evoke Getz as he sounded on the album, Wiszniewski is going play some of his improvised melodies and expand on them. He’s clearly excited by the challenge, and delighted to have been given the opportunity to pay tribute to a phenomenal improviser and stylist who, as Roger Spence points out, “is one of the giants of the LP era”; one whose output is as worthy of celebration by a jazz festival as a jazz composer’s.
* For full details of the Stan Getz strand, visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.com or call 0131 467 5200.