Cal Tjader’s name may not be one of the first that comes up in discussions of the “jazz greats”. His influence, however, was huge. Critic Ron Wynn has referred to Tjader as no less than “The greatest non-Latin bandleader in Latin jazz history”. Tjader got his start as drummer with the Dave Brubek Trio before taking up the vibes and joining George Shearing’s band, where he played with Latin percussion legends Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo. Both Santamaria and Bobo would eventually join Tjader’s band.
Stan Getz’s legacy is also built in no small part on his affinity for Latin jazz. If you’re even a casual fan of Latin jazz, or if you’ve ever been to a cocktail party, chances are you’re familiar with Getz’s work with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Astrud Gilberto. You know “Girl from Ipanema”? That’s Getz on the flirtatious tenor sax. Both Getz and Tjader were primary forces in developing and popularizing the sound that was later made internationally famous by Carlos Santana, among others.
These days, it’s anomaly to find a jazz reissue without bonus tracks or alternate takes. Sextet, however, has none. That’s because there weren’t any. Tjader and Getz knew each other, but had never played a session together until this one-off in San Francisco in February 1958. Yet, the natural chemistry between the two men was so great that they nailed the recording in a matter of hours. That effortless synergy is audible on the seven tracks here. The mutual respect is such that Tjader’s even-handed vibes and Getz’s lyrical sax never clash or compete for the spotlight. Rather, they complement each other.
For the most part, Sextet is focused on the bebop sound of the day. Tjader’s three originals have an easygoing, sun-soaked flair. Tjader’s vibes playing is deft and gentle, though far from the more spaced-out, some might say kitchy, “exotica” that Martin Denny and Les Baxter were dealing in at the time. Only pianist Vince Guaraldi’s frenetic “Ginza Samba” is a truly afro-Latin composition. Perhaps this is why the original track listing has been altered to put it in the lead-off position. You have to remember, though, this was six years before Getz/Gilberto would define the Latin jazz sound for the masses.
Actually, the most effective numbers here are the ballads, which give Tjader’s vibes ample space in which to shimmer. Still, it’s Getz who makes Sextet something more than a transitional record in the catalogs of all involved. Fresh after recovering from a period of heroin abuse, the saxophonist is in fine form. His playing manages to be exuberant and casual at the same time. He’s lushly romantic when laying down the melody to “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”, carefree when doubling guitarist Eddie Duran on “Big Bear”, and irresistible darn near everywhere. When he comes in with an almost Roland Kirk-like burst two minutes into “My Buddy”, the enthusiasm is palpable.
Sextet is notable almost as much for its sidemen as it is for its two leaders. Getz brought in bassist Scott Lafaro and drummer Billy Higgins, while Guaraldi and Duran came with Tjader. Lafaro would become highly esteemed for his work with the Bill Evans Trio, the landmark Portrait in Jazz included. Sadly, Lafaro is largely buried in the mix on Sextet, but when he is audible, he’s amazing, often playing around and even behind the beat. Higgins would shortly break ground with Ornette Coleman before playing with Thelonious Monk, Dexter Gordon, and many others. Guaraldi, of course, became synonymous with Charlie Brown and the Peanuts specials.
Yet, despite all the virtuosity involved and the strength of the song selection, Sextet suffers from a certain lack of warmth. Maybe it is the fact that these six men had never played together before, or maybe it’s just an unsympathetic remastering job. This is a solid recording that you will appreciate, but might not feel on an emotional level.
Speaking of unsympathetic, the way journalist Ralph J. Gleason’s original liner notes are butchered in the CD booklet is inexcusable. Did the folks at Concord hire a blind monkey to type them? It’s a bit shocking from an esteemed name like Concord.
The oldest of the players on Sextet were in their early 30s. That Sextet is a relatively minor entry in their respective repertoires speaks to the magnitude of the accomplishments they would go on to.