Tenor saxophonist Stan Getz gained commercial success early in his career because of his limpid tone, elegant phrasing and selection of strong but easily-accessible repertoire. In the 1960s, he scored a monstrously big hit with the Jobim tune “Girl From Ipanema,” and things soared to a level he was able to maintain for the rest of his life. But for all his mainstream success, Getz was always a great, and totally committed jazz musician, esteemed as much by his peers as by his public. And, in spite of his well-established reputation as an urbane, ultra-smooth player, he was more than capable of feverish improvisation over an extended set.
Live at Birdland 1961, although a nicely balanced set, leans toward the more aggressive aspect of Getz’s playing. The musicians who round out the quartet — Steve Kuhn on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Roy Haynes on drums — were particularly sharp on this date, playing with keen attention to the leader. But the rhythm section was also oddly mismatched in an intriguing way: Kuhn was an allusive player, seldom working along orthodox configurations, while Garrison was stalwart and propulsive, but holding to the middle ground. And Haynes was mercurial, his reflexes honed through years of playing in the jazz vanguard. Starting with a bristling “Airegin,” Getz alternates between fast geometric patterns and staccato bursts, Haynes’s commentary goading him on. Kuhn decides that discretion is the better part of valor; rather than going head to head with the leader, he opts for lyricism. Deejay Symphony Sid, who announces throughout the program, is given a brief tribute during “Wildwood,” where the tenor fluctuates between a relaxed “Jumpin’ with Symphony Sid” and 32nd-note dazzle.
Getz is all over the horn, and it’s good to be reminded of how absolute his control of the instrument was, even at its lowest register. The ballads are predictably stellar too; Harold Arlen’s “When the Sun Comes Out” maintains a meticulous balance of emotion and intellect, with Getz setting the mood and Kuhn sustaining it. Getz also shows his bop bona fides on the intensely burning “Jordu.” Live at Birdland 1961 puts out in the center of an outstanding set of live jazz played by one of Getz’s most engaged quartets.