Stan Getz at Storyville

Stan Getz – The Complete Roost Recordings: as exemplified by Stan Getz at Storyville Vols. I and II (1951)

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Stan Getz is probably best remembered for his spate of bossa nova albums in the early 60’s. After a decade’s worth of more straight ahead bebop and cool jazz albums, he partnered with guitarist Charlie Byrd, fresh from a State Department sponsored tour of Brazil, for the album Jazz Samba in 1962. Uncharacteristically for a jazz instrumental album, Jazz Samba was a legitimate hit, charting on the BillBoard pop charts and setting off a bossa craze. Getz quickly followed this success with another four bossa nova albums, including a big band album and the famous Getz/Gilberto album with guitarist Joao Gilberto, released in 1964.

It can be easy to dismiss Getz/Gilberto, and Getz by extension; the silky take on “Girl from Ipanema” with vocalist Astrud Gilberto has become something of an easy listening cliché. Then too, it suffers some credibility in jazz circles due to its undeniable success. In addition to having excellent sales, for some 43 years Getz/Gilberto was the only jazz album to win a Grammy for Best Album of the Year, until Herbie Hancock’s album River won in 2008. Coming at the exclusion of every great by Miles Davis or John Coltrane (or every great album of Herbie’s prior to River), that is something of a dubious distinction.

The bossa period – a few brief years over a five decade long career – hangs over Getz’s legacy as a musician, which in a way is a shame. Getz had a very characteristic sound on the saxophone, smooth and understated tone with full melodic improvised lines, but played a pretty wide range of music over his career. Prior to the bossa albums, he had a series of solid bebop albums with Dizzy Gillespie. My favorite is For Musicians Only, which also includes the great Sonny Stitt on saxophone. Compared to Stitt, Getz has a softer, rounder feel to his playing, but the melodies are just as sharp and blazing fast.

For Musicians Only provides an interesting comparison to Dizzy Gillespie’s two tenor followup two years late, Sunny Side Up, in which Getz is replaced by Sonny Rollins. To my ears, while Rollins certainly deserves his outsize place in the jazz canon, Getz holds his own. Following the bossa period, Getz would return to more straight ahead offerings. While his output from that time was periodically marred with overly lush with-strings type projects, he laid down some classic albums with musicians like Bill Evan. In the 70’s he even experimented a bit with jazz fusion, recording an album of early Return to Forever material with Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Tony Williams called Captain Marvel in 1972. Later in his career he would unite with piano great Kenny Barron for some great albums, particularly the intimate duo People Time.

Before all of that Stan Getz would record a session at the Storyville in Boston with Jimmy Raney on guitar, Al Haig on piano, Teddy Kotick on bass and Tiny Kahn on drums. Originally released as two LPs, it was a hard find for many years before a three disc reissue of the complete Royal Roost recordings was released in the 90’s. The Storyville material provides a good counterpoint to the more widely known samba material. While Getz/Gilberto shows a pretty light touch, the Storyville tracks are hot and fast. Getz’s tone is as round and soft at the edges as ever, but the songs drive pretty hard, in part because of the breakneck speeds. Every cut is uptempo at least. The closest thing to a ballad in the set list is a rendition of “Everything Happens to Me” and even that is around 100 BPM.

In his solos, Getz fills nearly every available second with an unassailable wall of 8th and 16th notes. The results can be breathtaking, literally if you try and imagine being on the playing side of some of those lines. Yet there’s an undeniable melodicism at play. Getz weaves in and out of the changes deftly and precisely, hitting every chord. He doesn’t sound like he’s rushing or struggling to keep the pace. There’s almost an easy, ambling quality to the lines – or whatever the super quick version of ambling is.

Just listen to this snippet from the track “Parker”:

Getz is tugging the listener along with him. When the chords aren’t changing fast enough for him, he jumps around within them. The looped phrases are carefully chosen; small changes to the melodies imply the harmonic shifts between chords in the piano. Impressively, the songs are fairly long for a jazz album from this period. Most are over 5 minutes, which is an eternity at some of the hyper tempos, giving the musicians plenty of time to really dig in. And dig in they do. Sax followed by guitar followed by piano, the musicians dancing around. The results can be exhilarating and tiring at the same time.

There’s a bravado in the Storyville tracks that I don’t see a lot of in later cool jazz or bossa nova Getz. The session does smack a little of the west coast/cool sound, two of the compositions even also show up in the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool sessions, but there’s something more aggressive about Getz here. While Getz showed considerable chops on numerous later albums, he sounds like he has something prove here. There was a time when I would have obsessed over an album like this, studied it and tried to recreate the blazing melodies within it. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate a solid, laid back swing over relentless technical displays. Listening to the Storyville volumes now, I can’t say it’s my favorite Getz, but it is a worthy document.