DAVE DAVIES, host:
Before saxophonist Stan Getz became famous for popularizing bossa nova with "The Girl from Ipanema," and before recording the great jazz and strings album "Focus" in the early '60s, and then leading a hip electrified band with Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke, Getz recorded with small jazz groups all through the '50s.
Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new reissue of Getz's quintet recordings. He says Getz was one of the best at playing pretty.
(Soundbite of song, "Body and Soul")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Stan Getz on "Body and Soul," 1952 from the "Clef & Norgran" sessions on three CDs. When he recorded that at age 26, he'd been playing professionally for a decade - 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, 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.
(Soundbite of song, "Feather Merchant")
WHITEHEAD: 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 his way of obsessing over little phrases sometimes.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: The Stan Getz "Clef & Norgran" sessions includes seven quintet dates 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 mines every moment, every detail. This is from "Stars Fell on Alabama."
(Soundbite of song, "Stars Fell on Alabama")
WHITEHEAD: 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 a little difficult. He was known to disparage the idea that his touching ballads concerned his own feelings.
Getting sentimental? I don't think about those things, he once said.
Not that it matters; 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 created bell-clear improvisations. Shouldn't that be enough?
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for eMusic.com. His new book is "Why Jazz: A Concise Guide." He reviewed the new reissue "Stan Getz Quintets: The Clef & Norgran Studio Albums" on Verve.