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JazzTimes 10: Jazz Albums with Strings

When we play them, we hear the sound of violins

Yes, of course Charlie Parker with Strings makes the list. It’s the wellspring, the album from which all the other “with strings” albums came. It’s also the most famous (and, in Bird’s lifetime, his biggest hit).

The subgenre that it created, though, was bigger even than Parker. Jazz-with-strings was a fecund enough concept to bring in older musicians of previously established styles. It became a ground for experimentation in later styles, even the avant-garde. It even had effects on jazz musicians who never worked with strings. (Consider: Without Charlie Parker with Strings, could there have been a Sketches of Spain?)

Influence aside, jazz with strings just made for plain-old great music. And it still does. Here is a decalogue of the best.

1. Stan Getz: Focus (Verve, 1962)

The standard complaint about jazz-with-strings albums, that the strings are treacly and overwrought, is one that could never be applied to Focus. Eddie Sauter’s orchestrations behind Stan Getz are cinematic, loaded with drama and paced with tension you could cut with a knife. (“Once Upon a Time,” the album’s penultimate track, is a self-contained suspense in its own right.) Getz’s playing against the strings goes beyond sympathetic to symbiotic: Neither element on “I Remember When,” for example, could operate without the other. “Pan” comes close to the beautiful-music sound that strings haters dread, but even that is ultimately just a slow burn to a climax. Getz considered Focus his best work; he is not wrong. It’s also the finest jazz-with-strings album ever produced.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.