Album Review: Cal Tjader / Stan Getz – Sextet

As a very young child, I was already quite the precocious pop music consumer. Born mere days after JFK was tragically struck down in Dallas, by 1968-69 I was an intent and conscious fan of pop music. Many of my early memories are imbued with the soundtrack of the times. Whenever I’d go for a car ride with my mom or dad, the radio would be tuned to WSBR-AM in Boca Raton, FL. I’d hear the Top 40 hits of the day, and I dug them.

But I didn’t understand them. Even in those days on AM radio, the pop songs were about love, relationships, and other weighty subjects completely alien to a four-year-old. Looking back, it’s clear that the music moved me, even though I couldn’t quite make any real sense of it. Still, in a real sense, those experiences were my introduction to rock’n’roll.

This has all come rushing back to me of late thanks to a number of CDs I have received for potential review. Concord Music is on a mission these days to re-release classic jazz albums from the catalogs it now controls. Labels like Riverside, Fantasy and Prestige were, in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, home to some of the finest jazz artists of that era (or any other).

When I listen to Sextet (credited to Cal Tjader / Stan Getz but featuring others equally important), I get that late sixties feeling all over again: I don’t understand this, but I love it.

The Sextet album almost didn’t happen. In 1958 the featured players were signed to various labels, and in a situation not unlike Hollywood’s “studio system,” musicians would occasionally be lent out from one label to another in reciprocal arrangements. Luckily this one-off project from tenor saxophonist Stan Getz with Cal Tjader on vibes did come together, and the duo enlisted some soon-to-be-legendary backup (though the word “backup” sells everyone involved far too short). Vince Guaraldi (piano) and Scott LaFaro (upright bass) were not yet quite the household names they’d soon become (LaFaro’s promising career was cut short when tragically died in a 1961 auto accident.) With Eddie Duran on guitar and Billy Higgins on drums, the session was essentially a supergroup, though that rock-centric term wouldn’t come into use for another decade or so.

This aggregation had never played together before, and would never again. But on a single day – February 8, 1958; the date deserves highlighting on any jazz lover’s calendar – the sextet produced seven tunes of exhilarating beauty.

Even to a rock listener/musician’s ears, Sextet is a remarkable recording. The ad hoc group set up at Los Angeles’ Marines Memorial Auditorium and played the songs – following charts prepared by Guaraldi and Tjader – live to tape. The instruments breathe in a way that rock music simply does not, cannot. Essentially an acoustic performance – though vibes do have an electric motor – the music was captured by strategically positioned microphones. It’s a tired device to observe that the music “sounds like it’s being played right in the room,” but with Sextet, it’s simply true. The stereo separation captures the warm and friendly (yet note-perfect) tones of the group.

And then there’s the songs themselves. “Ginza Samba” positively radiates joy and carefree abandon, but it does so in a tightly constructed way. Each player gets his chance to shine, but the song is never — not for a moment – an excuse for solo spots. Every note works in service of propelling the song forward. Getz, Guaraldi, Duran and Tjader each deliver their own variation on the signature melodic line, and when it all comes together toward the end, the effect is jaw-dropping.

A gentle reading of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” features most prominently the expressive, subtle piano work of Vince Guaraldi, complemented by Tjader’s mellifluous, resonating vibes. An impossibly romantic sax solo from Getz is supported by sympathetic strumming from Duran. The equally subtle brush work of Billy Higgins anchors the song without actually providing its beat (LaFaro’s bass nicely does that.) When — near the track’s end – everyone but Tjader drops out for a few bars, the vibes send shivers down the listener’s spine.

“For All We Know” smartly picks up that vibe (so to speak). The sequencing is perfect; it’s as if no other song could better have followed the previous track. The first half of the number is a Tjader spotlight; most of the second half focuses on Getz’s sax. And of course in the final minute it – once again — all comes together, flawlessly.

The up-tempo “Crow’s Nest” is a workout for everyone involved. Right out of the gate, the rhythm section gets a chance to blow, freed of the restraint they’ve shown on the previous tracks. While there are only six players (and no overdubs: this was 1958 after all), “Crow’s Nest” sounds in places like the work of a much larger outfit. LaFaro’s assured bass work pushes the song ahead, ahead, ahead. Guaraldi turns in his first major solo of the set, finding a wholly different (but sympathetic) melody within the grooves of the song. So, too, does LaFaro take a winning solo turn, illustrating the power and subtlety of his bass playing.

The romantic “Liz-Anne” is a short and straightforward waltzing jazz piece focusing primarily on Getz’s lyrical sax work and busier-than-it-sounds guitar from Duran. On “Big Bear,” Getz and Duran kick things off in harmonic lockstep; though the tone colors of their respective instruments are quite different, at times it’s difficult to pick out who’s playing what. Tjader’s extended vibes solo is masterful, as it tumbles into a Getz solo. The song’s outro reprises the delightful Duran/Getz duet.

“My Buddy” closes the set. And a perfect closer it is. Again focusing primarily on the top-billed players, the number showcases a sexy solo from Getz; meanwhile the band pretty much swings. And then it’s over. The entire session – rehearsal and performance — lasted a mere three hours. No bonus tracks were available for the Concord 2011 reissue, but then it’s hard to imagine anything truly adding to this sublime album. As Doug Ramsey writes in his excellent liner notes for the Concord reissue, “If you had been the producer, which of these seven pieces would you have told Tjader, Getz and friends to do over?” Ramsey characterizes Sextet as “42 minutes and 47 seconds of perfection,” and that’s a tidy, wholly accurate summation.

Sextet is an apt title for a suite of composition in which each player takes his turn in the spotlight and shows his ability to integrate into the group as a whole. No one ever fights for primacy; it’s a perfectly balanced performance throughout. I don’t claim to understand this stuff, but it moves me. Hearing Sextet gives me that feeling – akin to discovering rock’n’roll — all over again.

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