Jazzman Stan Getz made his name in bossa nova during the 1960s, with pop hits like “The Girl from Ipanema”. His smooth, tuneful saxophone playing was far more palatable to the masses than, for example, the jagged (and sometimes hysterical) beauty proffered by his contemporary John Coltrane. But, before he was a star, Getz had quietly released an avant-garde experiment of his own. This is Focus (1961), an exceptional fusion of jazz and modern classical music that he created with composer Eddie Sauter.
Getz shines brilliantly on this album. Sauter contributed deliberately self-contained compositions for a 19-piece orchestra—but he wrote nothing for saxophone, and he left subconscious “space” in the music for Getz to improvise his part. Somehow, Getz dances through and with the orchestra without apparent effort, laying down unpredictable melodies that never compete with Sauter’s work. As Getz said in the liner notes, the album proves that “the legitimacy of the past 300 years and the soul of our modern times can be put together and be beautiful.”
Focus shifts constantly into new territory, as Getz and the orchestra move from mood to mood: jazzy turbulence gives way to mournful balladry, and then to Alice in Wonderland-esque playfulness; and so on. Anchored by the fluid saxophone that made Getz famous, the record is challenging without being inaccessible. For good reason, he believed it to be his best work. Still, the attempt to explain Focus reminds one that beauty can merely be pointed to—never truly captured—by a description. Hear selections from the album after the break instead.