Retrieving Lost Moments in Time with Stan Getz

A portrait of Stan Getz. Courtesy RW Theaters.

Why now? Why Stan Getz now? Because he’s a voice in time and beyond time, a voice within and wherever. Wherever I go, I’ve come to know, I yearn to hear him, and all he has to say.

I understand now, as well as a non-saxophonist can, what John Coltrane meant when he said of Getz, “We’d all sound like that if we could.”  Coltrane was, among other things, a supreme master of balladeering, where many saxophonists make their bid for a sound as beautiful as possible.

My own analogue to Coltrane’s indirect superlative: I would carry Getz’s sound with me further than any other instrument’s, if forced to forsake all but one. Maybe it’s a Sophie’s choice between Getz and Miles Davis.

As a relatively young journalist, I had already reviewed a Getz performance at the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery for The Milwaukee Journal, a highlight among many superb artists I heard and reviewed there. Two years later, I interviewed him in Chicago, then wrote a feature previewing a Getz performance at a Rainbow Summer concert in Milwaukee. There I met him again afterwards and, though brief, the reacquaintance still holds a tight grip on my heart. You see, after a brief exchange of pleasantries, I agreed to accompany him in a walk to his hotel room, but he had one small condition.

Would I please carry his saxophone for him? After the performance, he was fatigued, partly the byproduct of years of abuse of his body with drugs and alcohol.

I accepted the task gladly, and the instant thrill of carrying one of the world’s most revered artistic instruments, beside its owner and artmaker, inspired a short poem, “Bossa Not So Nova.” 1

So, I’ve written about Getz in three modes but, mea culpa, it still doesn’t seem enough.

Lately I’ve revisited him upon buying a used copy of the Getz musical biography Nobody Else But Me, by Dave Gelly. It discourses across the artist’s career with close readings of numerous Getz recordings, his legacy beyond memories, as he died in 1991.

This excellent book prompted me to dig out an array of Getz recordings.

As I write, I’m listening to him essay “Infant Eyes,” an exquisite ballad by another giant of the tenor sax, Wayne Shorter, and each limpid whole note unfurls with delicious tenderness and knowing delicacy.

The album “Moments in Time,” recorded in 1976, was released in 2016. Courtesy Resonance Records.

But he’s much more than a fatherly cradle-rocker.

I couldn’t have responded to this recording much earlier than a few years ago, when I obtained a copy of the Getz album Moments in Time, recorded live by Getz’s Quartet in 1976, but not released until 2016 on Resonance, a label specializing in what I’d call “jazz archeology.” 2

And there’s more affinity between Getz and Shorter than a few of Wayne’s tunes in Getz’s repertoire. The sound of their voices resonates similarly, an exquisitely soft vibration, a singing like a distinctly masculine bird that — warbles and vibratos aside — can hold a note like a distant horizon of destiny. Both saxophonists have lived lives deeply shadowed by tragedy, likely informing their profound sensibilities.

Indeed now, the tune playing is “The Cry of the Wild Goose,” by trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, and it belies one misplaced reservation I held about Getz in the past.

He disabused me of it when I saw him in 1982 at the Jazz Gallery.

But I’m referring to back in the mid-1960s, when he broke into broad public awareness with his lilting bossa nova luminosities. He could hold and caress a note as if it were palpable and breathing which, with him, it truly was. Such audible tenderness enchanted me as much as any other single jazz artist did with one recording, Getz/Gilberto.

Cover of the famous album “Getz/Gilberto.” Connect Brazil.

And sure enough, right now with Horace Silver’s “Peace” (from Moments in Time), Getz is beguiling yet again. But back during the bossa nova craze, for all my admiration, I doubted whether Getz was capable of anything approaching what I call “The Cry.”

I do hear a cry in the “wild goose cry” tune I’d just heard, but I’m referring to a sound often heard among saxophonists in the 1960s, during the same time Getz lulled and seduced with “The Girl from Ipanema.”

Getz and vocalist Astrud Gilberto who sang the huge international hit, “The Girl from Ipanema.” which propelled the album “Getz/Gilberto” to great sales heights and an “Album of the Year” Grammy.

Getz/Gilberto, created, arranged, and recorded by virtually all Brazilian musicians, racked up unprecedented sales for a jazz recording (2 million copies in 1964) and became the first non-American album to win a Grammy Award for Album of the Year, in 1965.

The notion of “The Cry” is the expressionism that numerous saxophonists especially began manifesting during that period of social upheaval and raised consciousness over racial injustice. It’s a heavily freighted topic and subtext. So perhaps its unsurprising that a naturally lyrical white saxophonist isn’t easily associated with it. Nevertheless, over the years, the true and extraordinary range of Getz’s expressive power expanded, and his own version of “The Cry” arose, as such a vivid contrast to his inherently singing style that it carried the weight of striking effects, like a sculptor’s chisel discharging chards and sparks, to convey how life can force us to extremes of feeling and response.

To me, Getz seemed to be universalizing the plight and poignance conveyed in “The Cry,” most often associated with African-American musicians. This is not to minimize the racial suffering those artists endured and expressed, but to find the shared humanity in it. Getz’s suffering might be arguably his own demons’ making, more than of a cruel society built on systemic racism. He even was capable of violence under the influence, which he always regretted, even serving brief incarceration.

Gelly insightfully notes a great irony, how the drugs and liquor might’ve facilitated an “alpha state” in which, Getz explained, “the less you concentrate the better. The best way to create is to get in the alpha state…what we would call relaxed concentration.”

Such can be the price of art. Does that make it ill-begotten? Illegitimate?

As a Russian Jew, he may have had ancestral instincts of suffering and class oppression hounding his psyche. Accordingly, he seems a different sort of expressive animal — “Nobody Else But Me” as he might say. The simplicity of the declaration also may reflect Getz’s uniqueness, his fingerprint identity, his sonic originality as a pied piper whom, when heard, we still feel compelled to follow, decades after bossa nova first sailed across waves and valleys. Years after his last living breath.

Thank the music gods for his voice, retrieved and captured.

_________

1 a poem about Stan Getz (written to the cadence of “Girl from Ipanema.”)

2 Moments in Time comprises mainly classic and modern jazz standards with Getz’s working quartet at the time: pianist Joanne Brackeen, bassist Clint Houston and drummer Billy Hart. However, Resonance also released simultaneously a Getz album Getz/Gilberto ’76, highlighting guitarist-singer Joao Gilberto, and Brazilian songs,

pps. I also wrote about Getz when I found a used copy of his album Sweet Rain, as few years ago.

 

3. Here’s a review of a live Getz performance at The Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, in 1982:

 

Vibist Mike Neumeyer gives us the sound of changing our lives, of “Living the Dream”

The Rev. Martin Luther King had a dream that “we as a people” would get to. 

We all know plenty of cynics and often might think they’ve got it right, as rotten as the world seems. After all, TV pundits and journalists of all stripes give us the daily double of bleakness and societal tragedy. Yet social and political activism, the fuel of empowerment against daunting forces of darkness, also burns brightly in America today.

Jesse Jackson famously said “keep hope alive,” a descendant of Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I have a Dream” speech, and a father to Barack Obama’s profound book, and flagship theme, The Audacity of Hope.

It’s notable that all three great leaders were African Americans, who categorically need and benefit from self-motivational perseverance and pure survival instincts.

Such thoughts arose when I heard vibraphonist-marimbist Mike Neumeyer’s self-described “motivational inspirational music,” specifically a video I came across recently, created in April, titled “Live The Dream.”

After hearing it I thought, Yes, what about “living the dream?” What about “the audacity of hope?”

I was so struck by “Live the Dream” that I had to share it and comment:

I know when you first hear him, the music will seem almost effortlessly uplifting, which many people these days have built-in resistance to. It’s sad that such is the case, because we need the power of music to change people’s spirit and outlook more than ever today.

So I would suggest you simply go with the full-chested lyricism of Neumeyer’s song, which he sings in multiple vocal parts while accompanying himself on vibraphone, “Malletstation” synthesizer, and djembe, a conga-like hand drum. Especially considering Neumeyer isn’t known for singing (but he can sing!) the effect is stunning and, if you allow it to take you, rather exhilarating. The voices almost soar with the vibes-synth boost.

It’s a marvelous example of what one resourceful, positive-thinking musician can do today in his own recording studio with multiple tracking. For some, it might seem a bit slick, if not a bit too “feel good.”

However, I must counter that notion with an anecdote. I met Mike Neumeyer last year, shortly before the pandemic hit, when I sat in on a free-jazz improv workshop at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts in Milwaukee.

The premise of this workshop is the polar opposite of musical slickness, rather a striving for the ultimate in improvisational spontaneity and collective possibility. Neumeyer, although a highly accomplished musician, embraced the idea of free improvisation and did an excellent job as the guest workshop leader. His strong musical ideas, engaging style and personality made it all seem like a stimulating good time rather than intellectually challenging  or daunting, which the idea of free musical improvisation can seem.

Now consider his primary tools. On “Live the Dream,” hear his enveloping improvised solo on vibes. This can be an almost magical instrument – percussive yet melodic and harmonically buoyant and resonant, and sometimes quite sensual and sonically intoxicating. And in Neumeyer’s hands, marvelously exuberant in its lyricism, as in this case. As for his secondary instrument , the marimba – the wooden bars, by contrast to the vibraphone’s metal, make it a naturally warmer sound, where sometimes the vibes can sound chilly (The marimba can be heard on the instrumental version of the song 1 ). Neumeyer understands well the assets and limits of each instrument. Here, he rides the proverbial “good vibes” for all they are worth.

“All you have to be is willing to change,” he sings.

The message of the lyric suggests one can change your life in order to start “living the dream.”
Anytime I hear that philosophic proviso, that “you must change your life.” I think of the profound words of Rainer Maria Rilke. The phrase “you must change your life,” is Rilke’s most famous utterance. He is considered by many as Europe’s greatest poet of the modern age. As for me, his luminous beauty and wisdom prompted me and my bride to chose several of his poems in our 1997 marriage ceremony and program.

His quietly direct phrase is best appreciated in the complete poem from which it provides the closing line.

The poem is “The Archaic Torso of Apollo,” in which Rilke meditates on the headless body of the Greek god, as embodied in an ancient sculpture.

:We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life. 2

You might draw enough from the closing two clauses:

“for here there is no place that does not see you. / You must change your life.”

But Rilke Is observing the extraordinary powers of beauty in the statue, the brilliance of the evoked gaze, the dazzling curved breast and the smile that runs through the whole body “where procreation flared.” Indeed, the Apollo figure bursts “like a star.”

Here, the poet gently places his hand on the museum-goer’s receding shoulder. He draws, from this sculpture’s positive potential and creative radiance, the wisdom that the observer must not walk away content with the status quo, that such artistic genius, truth and beauty must show how, almost mystically, right here, there is “no place that does not see you” in your complacency, your wooden-legged stolidity.

And yet, the effect of the sculpture’s presence, mystical or not, is a real sensation, Rilke insists, otherwise the sculpture “would seem defaced” by the decapitation.

Such is the force and inspiration of wondrous art. Apollo was a god, but also a human being, with an inner place where “procreation flared.”

Ergo, the power you sense: You must change your life.

Almost embodying his evocation of Apollo’s missing head, poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s own eyes seem to say he meant it when he wrote, “you must change your life.” Courtesy apieceofmonologue.com

For me, I get something of that feeling listening to Mike Neumeyer, now. Indeed, you don’t need a great poet to draw such a message out of a marble sculpture, you can feel and hear it in this music.

Isn’t it high time to start working towards living your dream, however you envision that? High time, that more people, one by one if needed, start living the dream Martin Luther King had?  He knew, with almost god-like prescience, that “I may not get there with you.”

Aye, the TV tragedy. Guns and senseless violence. And yet, King promised “we as a people, will get to the promised land.” Might we still get there, even today, by changing our lives? That takes “inspiration” and “motivation” which gets us back to Neumeyer’s “Live the Dream.”

We do it one by one, by active heart and mind, until the people, the nation and the system change. One has to think, how else?

____________

1 Neumeyer has also recorded a instrumental version of “Live the Dream,” which includes marimba, here:

2. From Ahead of All Parting: Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell and published by Modern Library. © 1995 by Stephen Mitchell. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

 

On interviewing and covering Sun Ra: Part two of the “Artful Lives” radio interview with Culture Currents’ Kevernacular

Sun Ra (top), and his Myth-Science Arkestra (bottom, above). 

The one-of-a-kind Sun Ra rises (or descends from Saturn?) in memories, in conversation. Here’s part two of Riverwest Radio’s Elizabeth Vogt interviewing me about interviewing and covering the sometimes-astonishing, visionary jazz band leader Sun Ra. The occasion of coverage was Ra performing at the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery in 1982.

Artful Lives