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An Inspired Vision
A legendary 1961 creation by the American saxophonist Stan Getz transports us into a world of spontaneous creation and discovery.
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I compulsively reach for perfection in music, often at the expense of everything else in my life.
In 1961 the saxophonist Stan Getz recorded an album that stands almost alone in the history of jazz. Getz wanted to do what no one had done before: improvise melodies to orchestral arrangements that had been previously composed and recorded expressly for him.
The work was to be a spontaneous creation layered over a formal, carefully pre-defined structure. He chose for his collaborator the Julliard-educated composer and arranger Eddie Sauter, who took on the daunting challenge and described his goal as follows:
I had to do something for Stan, draw something out of him and show him off. I don't like music that shows pure technique or memory ... I wanted to write pieces that had continuity of thought and shape and had enough thematic strength to hold together, almost in their own right. And I always left, at the back of my mind, a space for another part to be added. I didn't know what was going to happen in that area.
Sauter composed seven pieces and scored them for an orchestra of about 20 musicians:
"I'm Late, I'm Late" – 8:10
"Her" – 6:13
"Pan" – 3:58
"I Remember When" – 5:03
"Night Rider" – 3:58
"Once Upon a Time" – 4:48
"A Summer Afternoon" – 6:03
Hershy Kay, the conductor, recorded the tracks on July 14th and 28th, without Getz, whose mother had died on the 13th. Legend has it that Getz spent the week Hershy was recording in a drunken (and probably drug-fueled) haze of mourning. Nonetheless, despite his grief, he entered a studio on July 28, put on a pair of headphones, and began to spontaneously invent his music while listening to Kay’s recordings of Sauter’s compositions. As the critic Steven A. Cerra noted in the liner notes to the 60th-anniversary Verve Records reissue of the album:
This would be a difficult enough task in normal circumstances, but he would be attempting something that no-one had ever done before, improvising freely inside a fully composed orchestral work, rather like making up a concerto on the spur of the moment. And it would have to be done in complete takes, the format rendering it virtually impossible to cut and splice the tape. If anything qualifies Stan Getz for the title of genius, it's what he achieved on July 28th 1961.
The album Getz and Sauter created, Focus, is generally considered the finest work of their respective musical careers, and I have to concur. When I first heard it, I was struck by the brilliance of Getz’s playing and the beauty of the music.
Getz is famous above all else for the tone that he was able to create with his instrument—one that many jazz experts believe has never been duplicated. As another critic noted:
Stan Getz was called “the Sound” because what came out of his saxophone was pure musical ambrosia, blue velvet, melted chocolate, a sound as recognizable as any singer’s voice, a perfect tone that almost any saxophonist would have died for. Even the guy who replaced him as the greatest tenor saxophonist of his time, John Coltrane, went so far as to say: “Let’s face it, we’d all sound like Stan if we could.”
The Getz sound had been fully realized only a few years before Focus was created, but it is in full bloom in this recording, for which, Cerra notes, even the editing was unusual:
The remarkable nature of these sessions was seen clearly later on when all the takes were played and edited. On any given selection, Stan created new compositions from take to take, although the string parts remained the same. A fresh idea inserted in take two shaded it into a different mood from take one and take three. It was virtually impossible to splice takes. The editing consisted largely of balancing the sound of the solo tenor sax and the orchestra so that the subtleties both Stan and Eddie intended came into focus on the finished master.
Though every track is worth consideration, my favorite is the penultimate, “Once Upon a Time.” Sauter once said he conceived of Focus as a collection of fairy tales, “as if Hans Christian Andersen were a musician,” and “Once Upon a Time” seems to me the fullest realization of that vision. I am most charmed by the part that begins at the 2:00 mark, when, after a tense pause that follows the track’s ominous opening, Getz’s saxophone takes off into a lyrical flight that evolves with grace and sophistication and defines the essence of the piece fully. Every time I hear it, I am reminded of the final moments of Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, especially from 30:11 onwards, when the piano and orchestra seem to ascend from the score only to descend into the work’s rousing conclusion. In addition to Schumann, one can hear echoes of Bartok, Debussy, Stravinsky, and even Grieg throughout the seven compositions, but at all times, the music is distinctive and never derivative.
Focus merits not just one listen but repeated exposure, for each contact with any of its tracks illuminates a sparkling musical moment or another sign of the genius that runs throughout it. One such moment comes at the end of “Her,” at 5:16, when the orchestra drops, leaving only a long note held by the violins and clarinets, over which Getz’s saxophone rapidly descends through a scale passage and comes to rest in a lovely lyrical closing phrase.
The album is full of such sublime moments, as Cerra notes in his conclusion:
Focus is very rare. It is not jazz in the forms we have come to accept. If it must be categorized, it can best be termed music of very high caliber—both written and improvised. It is a constantly intriguing listening experience, as this writer, who has heard the complete work more than 50 times in the course of compiling these notes, can readily attest. And what more can one ask of Jazz, or of all of music?”
Getz and Sauter collaborated once on the soundtrack for the 1965 film, Mickey One, which, like the film, is a more avant-garde work. Still, if one listens carefully, one can hear echoes of Focus in the film score.
It is a common question these days to ask whether one can separate an artist from his or her work. The question is especially relevant in the case of Stan Getz. By most accounts, he was a troubled man and a difficult person to love. A father of five children with two wives (both of whom he eventually divorced), he was a drug addict most of his adult life, and his first three children once had to be put into protective custody. Arrogant and fully aware of his musical genius, he hated to share the limelight. A musical colleague once joked, when told Getz had had a heart operation: “Did they finally put one in?” It’s fair to say that without the care of Monica, his second wife, Getz would likely have died young and not survived until 1991, when cancer took his life at the age of 64.
I think about Getz’s flaws and sad life when I hear Focus, of course, but what I find amazing is that none of the sorrow and pathos of his tragic existence are present in the music. The sounds are pure, the emotions genuine, and the glistening notes of his instrument seem to come from some place entirely disconnected from the life he led. This, perhaps, is the metamorphic magic of art: the transformation of the flawed artist into a flawless creator.
The Penguin Guide to Jazz rightly selected Focus as part of its suggested “Core Collection,” noting, “Nobody ever arranged for Getz as well as this, and Sauter’s luminous and shimmering scores continue to bewitch.” Getz liked to say that he “never played a note I didn’t mean,” and that clarity of musical purpose is evident throughout Focus, an album I return to often, both for its musical worth and as a model of inspired human creativity.