The best of Stan Getz: Five essential albums by ‘The Sound’

Jazz abounds with legendary sax players, and the players at the top of the pyramid have much in common: innovation, personality, and fiery dexterity. But there’s more to music than virtuosity. There’s also the elusive goal of beauty.

A thousand tenor players can shred the circle of fifths and lay down the choruses at eye-popping speed. There aren’t nearly as many who can do all that with their own unique tone, their own sound, a signature style that’s born of the artist’s personality, their musical DNA and their musicality. In other words, there are very few like Stan Getz.

Rising to prominence in the late 1940s as a soloist with Woody Herman’s orchestra, Getz launched a successful solo career in the ‘50s working with the likes of Horace Silver, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, Ray Brown, Max Roach and more. In the ‘60s, Getz went on to be a major part of the introduction of bossa nova music to American audiences through his collaborations with Charlie Byrd, Gary McFarland, Luiz Bonfá and, most famously, the legendary Brazilian team of Antônio Carlos Jobim and João and Astrud Gilberto.

Through his career, Getz became known as “The Sound” thanks to the warm, lyrical tone that he made an intrinsic element of all of his music.

Throughout multiple eras spanning nearly half a century, Getz recorded more than 100 albums as a leader or co-leader and dozens more as a sideman. Out of all of that music, these five records are among the most essential works showcasing the signature style of Stan Getz.

Woody Herman and his Orchestra – Blowin’ Up a Storm: The Columbia Years 1945-1947 (2001)

Born in Philadelphia in 1927, Getz got his first saxophone at the age of 13 and was soon practising eight hours a day, largely influenced by the great Lester Young. The hard work paid off: By the time he was 20, he’d played with Stan Kenton, Jimmy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. He joined Woody Herman’s band in 1947 — as part of the “Second Herd” — and shot to fame with Early Autumn, one of Getz’s first big hits. He was one of the band’s four saxes — along with Zoot Sims, Serge Chaloff and Herbie Steward — called the “Four Brothers.” Jimmy Giuffre’s tune of the same name became a huge hit and a Getz signature.

Stan Getz – The Complete Roost Recordings (1997)

Getz left Woody Herman’s band and kicked off his solo career in 1950. He moved to Los Angeles, where he played with many of the bop stars who had worked with Charlie Parker. He charted a hit in 1952 with Moonlight in Vermont and his star was rising. Getz signed to Roost Records and released nearly 70 sides. The complete collection is first-rate; among the standouts is Rodgers and Hart’s Thou Swell, recorded live in Boston at the Storyville Club in October of 1951.

Stan Getz – Focus (1961)

Getz moved to Copenhagen in the late ’50s and returned to the U.S. in 1960, where he commissioned composer Eddie Sauter to write a suite called Focus. Influenced by the composer Bela Bartok, it sounds like it could be a soundtrack, but no film was involved.Recorded in New York’s Webster Hall in July of 1961, Getz is joined by a string orchestra and, on one track, drummer Roy Haynes. Sauter wrote no parts for Getz, who just improvised against the orchestra’s live performance. Critics have called Focus Getz’s best work, and it is indeed an unquestioned masterpiece.

Stan Getz and João Gilberto – Getz/Gilberto (1963)

In 1962, guitarist Charlie Byrd went on a state-sponsored tour of Brazil. Smitten with the bossa nova, he joined Stan Getz to record the million-selling album Jazz Samba. In 1963, Getz joined Antônio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto and his wife, Astrud Gilberto, who had never recorded before. Their album Getz/Gilberto was an overwhelming success. Astrud Gilberto’s performance of Jobim’s The Girl From Ipanema won a Grammy and has never stopped being played. That song is already inescapable, but others such as Corvovado are just as essential.

Stan Getz and Bill Evans – Stan Getz and Bill Evans (1973)

Getz played and recorded nearly continuously with a host of top jazz stars, including Bill Evans, from the 1960s to his death in 1991. In the ’80s, he taught at Stanford University as an artist in residence. Getz’s unique sound and cool but intense style never varied, but he was at times a difficult person — much of it a result of his battle with addiction — prompting his lifelong friend and fellow tenor great Zoot Sims to describe him as “a nice bunch of guys.” Yet he was still a born collaborator, and that’s showcased beautifully with Bill Evans on their only album together, recorded for Verve in 1964 (but not released until nearly a decade later). One of the song titles sums the man up: But Beautiful.

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