Stan Getz: Improving on Perfection

The seven-disc People Time offers endless, heartbreaking felicities

He's better served by the slow-moving chords of "First Song," a Charlie Haden near-dirge performed three times to increasingly heartbreaking effect.

Unlike, say, Allen Eager or Brew Moore (to name just two other white, Lester Young–spawned saxophonists of his generation), Getz was only circumstantially a bebopper even in the 1940s, and never one to blindly chase chords. His true gift—and hardly a small one, either—was for melodic embellishment. Though he never literally sang on record, he has to be counted (along with Hodges, Webster, Bobby Hackett, and Miles Davis) among the most persuasive of male jazz singers. Even on songs that don't have any, lyrics are implicit not only in his phrasing and articulation, but in the hum of his breath as it rises through his diaphragm and into his horn.

Along with "First Song," four other ballads on People Time are drawn from jazz rather than the Great American Songbook: Mal Waldron's "Soul Eyes," Thad Jones's "Yours and Mine," Brazilian pianist Eddie del Barrio's "I'm Okay," and the title tune by Benny Carter. In an ironic twist, not writing his own music gradually worked to Getz's advantage in making him an unofficial arbiter of which tunes by other jazz performers belonged in the standard repertoire. Would anybody today be doing Billy Strayhorn's "Blood Count," lovely as it is, if Getz hadn't retrieved it in 1962? But I doubt "I'm Okay," for example, is ever going to gain currency, because it's tough to imagine anyone discovering new lyrical depths Getz left unplumbed.

It's even tougher to imagine anyone not being moved to chills by his three interpretations of the song on People Time—except maybe the mean SOB Getz apparently was for so many years. Tempting though it may be to point to People Time's ballads as evidence of Getz's heightened sensitivity toward the end, the truth is that there are comparable ballad performances from every stage of his career. Oh, well: Webster and Miles weren't always such nice guys, either, and don't even get me started on Sinatra. Maybe what they say about jazz—that someone's true character is revealed through his or her horn, that what you play is who you are—is hogwash after all. But I'm happier believing that the person Getz ultimately realized he was always meant to be was there in his solos right from the start, as moved as the rest of us, and just waiting for Getz to notice. Go ahead, laugh.

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