When a jazz musician crosses the boundary of 60, he or she must decide what to do with phrases already played thousands of times. Do you just keep playing them with less and less emotional force? Do you replace them with a whole new bag of tricks? Or do distill your playing like whiskey, getting rid of the superfluous notes so only the highest-proof music remains?
The last four years of Stan Getz’s life were devoted to such a distillation. Five months after he turned 60, the tenor saxophonist brought his quartet to Copenhagen’s Café Montmartre on July 6, 1987. No longer did Getz seem to be exploring for the right notes by sending out search parties in all directions; now he went directly to the right phrase at the right time. The sharp focus was reinforced by the forward push from drummer Victor Lewis, a master of the cymbals; bassist Rufus Reid, a master of melody; and pianist Kenny Barron, a master of turning single-note lines into harmony.
The radio broadcast from that evening was so fruitful that it yielded not just one of the Getz’s best albums but two: Anniversary, released in 1989, and Serenity, in 1991. The saxophonist began to think of the Danish nightclub as a good luck charm and returned there in March 1991, for four nights of duo performances with Barron, released a year later as People Time. Except for one night in Paris, these would be Getz’s last public performances, for he would die of liver cancer on June 6.
It’s unclear whether or not he knew he was dying. Barron says he talked to Getz in May about a summer tour that was to begin in July. It’s clear, however, that the saxophonist was very sick; he often had to pause to catch his breath and conquer his pain between tunes, and he cancelled the eighth show of the four-day run for health reasons. It’s also clear that the process of distillation had proceeded even further since the 1987 dates. Getz’s lines had grown even cleaner and leaner, sculpted by pauses into thin phrases of pure lyricism.
The original two-CD set, People Time, offered 14 of the week’s 48 performances. Now all 48 numbers (covering 24 different tunes) have been released as a seven-CD box set, People Time: The Complete Recordings, one disc for each of the seven sets. Also in the box is a long essay by Gary Giddins, making the argument that all 48 numbers deserve to see the light of day. It’s not, he concedes, that Getz and producer Jean-Philippe Allard made the wrong decisions in picking the 14 best tracks for the original release. Rather, Giddins argues, this is one of the unacknowledged high points of jazz history, and hearing it unfold over seven sets and four days is an unparalleled pleasure.
Perhaps it’s a matter of personal taste. The box set provides a superb listening experience, but neither it nor the original two-CD set would be a desert-island disc for me; in fact, I prefer the muscularity of the 1987 quartet sessions to the intimacy of the 1991 duo dialogues. One can’t deny Giddins’ argument, however, that the seven discs unfold like a story of two men growing closer and closer together until they reach a rare telepathic rapport on the final three sets.
On the first set of the third night, an ailing, dissatisfied Getz replaced the reed on his horn. He tested out the new reed on “You Stepped Out of a Dream,” and then threw off all concerns about health and equipment for a sublime reading of Benny Golson’s elegy for Clifford Brown, “I Remember Clifford.” Perhaps the autumnal twilight of this ballad fit Getz’s frame of mind, because his famously tender tone had seldom worn the bruise of loss so revealingly. And Barron was right there with him; his chording never fell into a repeating pattern but moved with the sax as if offering consolation to every painful phrase. The set ended with a spirited version of “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top”; Getz ratcheted up the tension by chopping out pieces of the familiar melody while Barron pursued a duet between his funky left hand and lyrical right.
Giddins calls the second set of that evening “one of the great Stan Getz sets, one of the great Kenny Barron sets, and arguably the best of the Getz-Barron sets.” Four of the six numbers wound up on the original album, and the other two are nearly as good. Getz’s distillation of his sound didn’t reduce the forcefulness or exuberance of his playing, but merely gave it better framing by clearing away the clutter, as he proved on “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)” and “Night and Day.” But the highlight of the set, of the entire week, and perhaps of Getz’s career is the version of Charlie Haden’s “First Song.” Introduced by Barron’s spare, mood-setting piano, this ballad tribute to Haden’s wife, Ruth Cameron, became, in Getz’s emotionally naked, pause-punctuated solo, an admission of every regret and gratitude he has accumulated during his long life.
It’s worth noting that most of the highlights of this box set are neither show tunes nor Getz originals but rather compositions by distinguished jazz musicians: Haden, Dizzy Gillespie, Thad Jones, Eddie Del Barrio, Mal Waldron, Benny Carter (who wrote the title tune) and Golson, who contributed three different titles. Golson is a lovely saxophonist but he could never play like Getz, while Getz could never write like Golson. They needed each other, and jazz needs more such symbiotic relationships between writers and players.