In the early 1950s, jazz was in an interesting place. Swing (the largely big-band, dance-oriented music) was dead or dying, and the bebop era was winding down, but the movements that would carry the music’s mainstream practitioners through the 1960s—hard bop, soul jazz—had yet to emerge. One thing that was happening was “cool jazz,” a movement identified with the West Coast and, for good or ill, with a lot of white players like trumpeter Chet Baker, trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, pianist Dave Brubeck, and tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. (N.B.: There was another mini-movement within “cool jazz” that included pianist Lennie Tristano and saxophonists Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz; while “cool” in the sense that it avoided the overheated flash associated with bebop, their music was very different from that under discussion here, pointing in the direction of Anthony Braxton, Steve Coleman and many current, strongly theory-based players. So let’s leave them out.)
This three-CD set (buy it from Amazon) gathers five 10″ EPs and a few stray singles and LP cuts recorded by Stan Getz between 1952 and 1955, throwing in three previously unreleased alternate takes for a total of slightly under four hours of music. It’s possible to chart not only the saxophonist’s evolution as a player, but changes in technology as well; many of the first 15 or 16 tracks were released on 78 rpm singles before being compiled onto 10″ EPs, so they’re no more than three and a half minutes long. In that time, Getz and his bandmates—initially pianist Duke Jordan, guitarist Jimmy Raney, bassist Bill Crow and drummer Frank Isola—keep it simple, blowing through faithful renditions of the songs’ core melodies, offering brief solos, and returning to the melody for a quick final statement. There’s no compositional legerdemain or rhythmic trickiness on display; this is smooth, non-confrontational jazz, yet its beauty is extraordinary and undeniable.
Getz’s saxophone style is ideally suited to this compressed, concentrated format. His phrasing, which is thoughtful without ever being dry or emotionless, and his tone, which is smooth without being boring or monotonous, are best experienced in the short bursts dictated by the 78/single format. There’s plenty of brilliant playing on the longer tracks from 1953-55, of course, and/but there, Getz’s saxophone is frequently paired with Brookmeyer’s trombone, and the two engage in a lot of almost conversational interplay; when one solos while the other withdraws, it’s nice but less enjoyable, somehow, than hearing the two of them together. Among the few exceptions are the seven-minute “Minor Blues” and the nearly eight-minute “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” both originally released on Interpretations by the Stan Getz Quintet #2; on the former, Getz shadows Brookmeyer during the trombonist’s solo, but is then left largely alone to wander atop a walking bass line from Teddy Kotick and Isola’s persistent, ticking hi-hat, and on the latter cut, the reverse occurs, with Brookmeyer taking an extended solo which leads into quick spotlight turns by pianist John Williams and bassist Kotick, before the main melody returns.
The tracks that diverge most sharply from the mode described above are the first twelve, recorded in December 1952, and a quartet session from January 1954 with pianist Jimmy Rowles, bassist Bob Whitlock and drummer Max Roach. The latter session produced four tracks which were spread across two singles, and two previously unreleased alternate takes. In both circumstances, Getz is the sole horn, and his playing on the 1954 tracks is as concise as it was two years earlier, his tone a warm buzz. Even when playing with brushes, Roach manages to create an incredible rhythmic tension, a skill he would display to an even greater degree when the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet made its debut recordings eight months later.
On Interpretations by the Stan Getz Quintet #3, recorded in the summer of 1953 and the fall of 1954, tempos have quickened, and while Getz is as smooth and seemingly effortless as ever, his phrases tumbling forth inexorably, each note tapping the next into place like lines of dominoes, the band behind him seems eager to abandon “cool” for a twitchy jumpiness. Pianist Williams in particular seems intent on driving the band ever more energetically; on a version of “The Varsity Drag,” he’s barely staying behind the horns, striding forward like Professor Longhair instead, and when his solo spot comes, he jumps in with fleet and intricate scatterings of notes.
The CDs are sleeved inside a hardcover book, which includes a short but informative essay by Ashley Kahn and several overlapping annotations of the recordings (a chronological sessionography, a breakdown indicating the various ways they’ve been repackaged over the years, and a somewhat inexplicable alphabetical listing of tracks by title). There are numerous reproductions of album and EP covers, as well. It’s a beautifully assembled package, well worth owning in physical form, though the music—which is the point, after all—would please any listener, even one who had no idea who was playing.