Thursday, August 16, 2018

In Appreciation Of George Shearing by Simon Pilbrow

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


Frequent visitors to the pages might recall a posting earlier this year [2018] about a compact disc entitled Colours of Sound - by Simon Pilbrow with the Brent Fischer Orchestra [Clavo Records CR 201709].

I met Simon, who is also a physician and lives with his family in Australia, for the first time at a Los Angeles Jazz Institute event and subsequently stayed in contact with him via the internet

Talk about first impressions. Not only was he a fan of the styles of Jazz that I favor but Simon was also a musician; a first rate pianist and now, thanks to a sampling of his writing ability on the new CD, a composer, too, of some distinction.

Another of Simon’s gifts is his ability to write very descriptive narratives, some of which take very complex things and break them down into pieces that are easier to understand.

Accomplished Jazz musicians have the ability to make playing the music seem effortless. As a result, sometimes we, the listening audience, form the impression that this stuff comes fully formed such that its as easy to make as pouring it out of a bottle.

Reading Simon’s essay on George Shearing and his music will more than dispel that notion, while at the same time, provide you with an understanding of the immense complexities involved in continuously making the music at such a high level of performance.

© -  Simon Pilbrow: copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.

In Appreciation Of George Shearing and his Piano Block Chords

“George Shearing was an incredible musician, with very comprehensive jazz and classical chops. He was a genius and his contribution to jazz has been major. What we probably all agree on is that what he achieved musically with his block chord architecture would have to be his most individual and enduring contribution, and its influence on every jazz pianist since and many others. For what it is worth, I thought I would add some background on this – as a piano player who has long admired Shearing’s music. Dates are approximate – there may be inaccuracies.

Shearing’s block chords were based on a closed octave – five notes, top and bottom doubled, an octave apart. The same structure was employed from the late 1930’s by Glenn Miller, in his arranging for his reed section, the unique sound achieved with clarinet in the top voice. Later saxophone sections exploited similar structures. [As an aside, using just four voices - no doubling however, I would argue that a reed section often achieved a lighter sound - many examples e.g. the Four Brothers sound and the Art Pepper+Eleven recording with the harmonized Parker solo on Groovin’ High - which included Med Flory - achieve a lighter sound than Flory’s later arrangements for the incredibly brilliant Supersax, where baritone doubled first alto).  Going back way before this, I hear similar structures in Puccini’s operas, with his trademark vocal doubling the first violins, the strings playing what sound to be closed-octave, five-part harmonies like Shearing. I have not consulted the scores to verify this - only my ears. However, the most direct source or origin of the Shearing sound that I have ever found, quite accidentally, is in Johnny Green’s original published sheet music for “I Cover the Waterfront” (c 1933), where he spells out Shearing-type block chord passages for a bar at a time in places, four notes in right hand, melody doubled in the left hand, exactly as most later jazz pianists would play them. I don’t know if young George had access to this music - obviously he could not have read the music, being blind from birth – but it seems to be more than a coincidence. Many ordinary folk, who bought the sheet music to play it in their own living rooms, would likely have practiced and played these voicings as Johnny Green written. Attractive though they are, it seems that they were not exploited by others in the front line of jazz for some time.

Milt Buckner began playing his locked-hands voicings in the late 1930s, and Shearing apparently heard these and was influenced by them – but these employed four note voicings in the right hand, and the same four notes an octave lower in the left hand – so eighth notes. This was pretty technically demanding, could get muddy. Years later Oscar Peterson would conquer this. With regard to the less dense, five-note, Shearing-type voicings, one can hear Billy Strayhorn, when sometimes in the Ellington piano chair, occasionally playing similar 5-note voicings around 1940-41, Ellington himself in places in the early 1940s. Nat King Cole was using them a little in the mid 1940s, as more conspicuously was Lennie Tristano on recordings around 1945-1946. George Shearing burst on the US Scene in 1947, playing his voicings extensively, and with obvious superior technical facility than anyone. Erroll Garner used these voicings in the late 1940s,l perhaps influenced by Cole or Shearing (“Pastel” is a great ballad example, with some nice chromaticism; “Play Piano Play” is a bouncier swinging example) but his many other trademarks were always more prominent.

So, why are Shearing and his block chords so significant to the history of jazz piano? The following are my reasons:

  1. He made these voicings much more chromatic, bringing much more harmonic sophistication, and, I would contend, pushed the harmonic possibilities further with these voicings than any other pianist.
  2. He harmonized whole melodies with his block chords, when other pianists were playing single lines, adding harmonic appeal for the listener
  3. He seemed to have conquered the musical and technical possibilities of this block chord architecture before he hit the US scene – it was fully formed, matured and in top gear.
  4. He seemed to place his voicings within the mid register of the piano more judiciously than any other, to coax the right sound out of them in each situation – whether playing softly or when playing more forcefully
  5. He could improvise bebop piano solos with five part harmonies, four note in the right hand, at speed – while his contemporaries were using single note right hand – this would have been astonishing at the time. Apparently he could do this in any key.
  6. Part of the appealing sound he created was often having small intervals at the bottom of the voicing – minor and major 2nd intervals
  7. His use of minor six chords I think stands out as a sound of the emerging schools of cool jazz.
  8. He would create interesting and appealing harmonic movement in the inner voices while on a more stationary chord
  9. Conversely, he would create the opposite effect by holding inner voices stationary while moving the melody notes on top and bottom, creating some very appealing sounds
  10. One of his rhythmic devices that was particularly hip was to play the open octave on the first beat and repeat that melody note with the full five note chord on the “and” of the first beat – creating a wonderful, offbeat rhythm.
  11. He played these chords more smoothly than everyone else – as well as very incisively - had more articular subtlety and wider emotional range.
  12. Influence on all who followed - most jazz pianists since have had to master the technique as they absorb and expand their musical language. Essential part of jazz piano technique.
  13. The sound of his quintet with vibes on top and guitar on the bottom was a brilliant and appealing sound (he must have pinched himself many times since), has been much imitated since, and he could adapt it to all situations, tempos, rhythms, including latin - no surprise that the sound was very popular (and yes, it was exploited way beyond jazz into more saccharine music forms – this helped him survive financially, and he was apparently able to help his own parents out of poverty)
  14. Shearing’s judicious choice of tunes and key that naturally fitted the Shearing block chord sound - modifying the melody, harmonies and or rhythm, as he cleverly and tastefully did, to exploit the richness of the sound with the best tunes he could. Sometimes could transform the banal one into a gem.
  15. Shearing’s own compositions which exploited all the above to showcase the sounds made possible by the technique. "Lullaby of Birdland" being the obvious survivor of his 500-odd compositions and a lovely er…um….'contrafact' of 'Love Me Or Leave Me’. (referring to my point about reed sections, the wonderful late 1950s Woody Herman recording had the 4 part harmony Four Brothers’ sound, again achieving that lighter sound, that a a 5-part Shearing type (voicing a la Supersax) would have rendered too muddy. Woody’s band gets that light sound by not doubling the top voice an octave below)

It is interesting that each pianist who has used similar voicings extensively, particularly within the fifties and sixties, found quite unique ways to do it that is quite identifiable – and a product of different rhythmic , harmonic and articular approaches and sensibilities presumably

  • Oscar Peterson – used more passing (often diminished) chords to connect his chords than was Shearing’s preference (I believe); played beautiful ballads with block chords (e.g Emily on MPS – Travellin On - Exclusively For My Friends)
  • Wynton Kelly – 1951, at 20 – “Blue Moon” – masterly playing of block chords, similar to his friend Peterson’s approach
  • Bill Evans – I believe he was left handed – played more notes in left hand and less, often only one in the right hand, with different articular effects. (great early example of mature and distinctive Evans block chording is on “On Green Dolphin Street” with Miles in 1959). He also would put the small intervals in the middle of the chord – whereas Shearing would often put them at the bottom of the chord.
  • Hampton Hawes – rhythmically striking, confident approach, very hip sound,  – e.g. “Just Squeeze Me”, 1955.
  • Herbie Hancock – his own man at 20-21 years (1961 with Donald Byrd and Pepper Adams – “Daydream” is a great example)


I reckon George Shearing earned his place in the jazz piano pantheon.”

- Simon Pilbrow, Melbourne, Australia, Aug 9, 2018





Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Full Album/LP! Jazz - The George Shearing Quintet - Latin Escapade (1956)

If you didn't know that it was Shearing on piano, you'd think you were listening to a well-schooled pianist who was brought up in the Latin Jazz tradition. George had some pretty wicked Latin Jazz piano chops. And, in his hands [no pun intended], he really brings out the beauty of ballads like "Yours" and "Without You" played in the Latin Jazz style. This album is from the mid-1950s when the Mambo craze was in full force in NYC.

Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orch. On Tour Munich 1974, Vol. 3

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

George Shearing: An Essay by Dick Katz

George Shearing: An Essay by Dick Katz


© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.




“The live performances in this collection are unusually interesting, and are in many instances, a true revelation. Far from sounding dated, they have marvelously stood the test of time. Yes, the blander selections sometimes come perilously close to sounding like what is called today, "elevator music." But this isn't necessarily a bad thing. After all, in today's world of excess cacophony, it can be downright therapeutic. But the "heavy stuff is world-class jazz. Shearing's imaginative, idiomatic solos, flawless comping and arrangements sound wonderfully fresh. Also the solo contributions of the other group players are on a consistently high level.


Recorded live at various locations around the country, the recorded sound is uniformly excellent, and the spontaneity generated is refreshingly evident. It is well known that it is much more difficult to capture the "of the moment" feeling in a studio, where fighting the clock, and repeating take after take can be counterproductive, and dampen spirits.”
- Dick Katz [emphasis mine]


The following feature is meant to be an homage to the courage and genius that was George Shearing and to the singular ability of Dick Katz to write about the history of Jazz piano and the particular significance of its principals.


No slouch himself as a Jazz pianist, Dick Katz had the wonderful capacity of bringing to life the particular characteristics of a Jazz pianist’s style … in words!


Dick was an essayist, educator and an erudite man who had a gift for helping you hear things in the music.


Not surprisingly, then, Michael Cuscuna, who heads up Mosaic Records, tapped Dick to prepare the insert notes for Mosaic’s 5 CD boxed set – The Complete Capitol Live George Shearing [MD5-157].


Spanning the period from 1958 to 1963, the Mosaic set includes the Shearing quintet in performance at Claremont College in CA, The Crescendo, a club on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, the Masonic Temple in San Francisco, CA, the Santa Monica [CA] Civic Auditorium and the venerable Blackhawk which was located at the corner of Turk & Hyde Streets in San Francisco.


In these “live” performances, Shearing departs from his usual method of the vibes and the guitar sharing a chorus while he follows with a chorus and then the group takes the tune out; all of which neatly fitting into a span of three minutes or so.


The origins of this format had to do with the advent of the 33 1/3 rpm LP which allowed for about 20 minutes of recorded music on each side. George’s 3-minute-per-tune formula allowed for six tunes on each side on an LP and greatly enhanced the commercial appeal of his recordings for those who were looking for quantity rather than artistic expression.


Instead, on The Complete Capitol Live George Shearing [MD5-157],
George and the members of the quintet stretch-out and it is a joy to hear the likes of guitarists Toots Thielemans, John Gray and Ron Anthony and vibraphonists Emil Richards, Warren Chiasson and Gary Burton, along with George, of course, improvising on multiple choruses.


Throughout his individual track annotations, Dick Katz elaborates on what makes George’s performances on these live dates so refreshing and interesting. The writing is as much a testimony to Dick’s “giant ears” as it is to George’s genius as a Jazz pianist.


Here are some examples of Dick’s discerning perspective:


September in the Rain – “George settles into some spacious, wonderful timeless playing that contains real Jazz ideas.”


Roses of Picardy – “Lovely Shearing piano displays his watch-maker-super-sensitive beautiful touch.”


Little Niles – “Shearing’s ease with triple meter and masterful chorded solo shows what he’s capable of when more than routinely challenged.”


Jordu  - By Duke Jordan, was very popular in the fifties, and was recorded by many jazz greats. Aside from its nice melody, the circle-of-fifths bridge is a challenge for improvising. This version is distinguished by the ensemble which has some typical Bach-like counterpoint by George against the melody.  … Shearing's comping and boppish solo are standouts. He was really into it in those days. Nice arranged coda.


Nearness of You - The beautiful Hoagy Carmichael ballad is given a trio treatment. After a real Hollywood-concerto-style intro, a la Max Steiner, Shearing settles into a delicate broken-octave statement of the melody which shows off his gorgeous touch. Only one chorus with a tag, played in G flat, a key rarely used by most pianists. Lovely simple melodic variations on the last half of the song. Even your grandmother could appreciate this kind of playing. …”


Mambo Inn -  is a Latin standard that features Armando Peraza's congas and percussion. This is an effective Latin-jazz marriage that conjures up nights at The Palladium and Afro-Cuban Ballroom in New York where this music reigned not so long ago. Good Emil Richards vibraphone, and Shearing sounds positively like a native Cuban pianist.


In the insert booklet, Dick also provides this overview of George’s career with a special emphasis on how Shearing’s “pluck and luck” helped bring about one of the most remarkable careers in all of Jazz history. In many ways, it parallels that of another unique Jazz pianist – Dave Brubeck.




© -  Dick Katz/Mosaic Records, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“George Shearing's childhood in London was no lullaby of Birdland, or anywhere else. His rise from near-grinding poverty to lucrative musical celebrity is the stuff that rags (not the Scott Joplin variety) to riches movies were made of in the so-called golden age of Hollywood.


His beginnings were humble indeed. Born blind on August 13, 1919, he was the youngest of nine children. His father delivered coal, and his mother, in addition to caring for the children, cleaned railway cars at night.


George's education was colorful to say the least. As he told Whitney Balliett in a New Yorker article in 1987: "It appears that at the age of three I made gallant but improper attempts at producing music. I used to hit the piano with a hammer." This was at the Shillington School in Battersea, southwest London. Between the ages of twelve and sixteen he attended Linden Lodge, a residential school in the lush countryside for blind children. This was mandatory, but it was also a welcome relief from the grime of working class London. It was at Linden Lodge that he learned to play Bach, Liszt and other classical composers, and to study music theory. When he graduated he found work in a pub. Before long he joined Claude Bampton's 17-piece All-Blind Band. It was his first glamorous job, with uniforms from Saville Row, and six grand pianos for the finales! Since all but the leader were in fact blind, the music was transcribed into Braille, which Shearing had learned. This was the young pianist's first substantial contact with live jazz, and the experience of playing Lunceford, Ellington and Benny Carter arrangements left its mark on him. He also began listening to the latest recordings by Tatum, Armstrong and other top artists.


Enter a young aficionado — pianist and fledgling critic Leonard Feather. Upon hearing Shearing at a rhythm club jam session, he undertook to help the young jazz prodigy in every way he could. Feather set up his first recording session when Shearing was only nineteen and also arranged radio broadcasts for him. By 1939, Shearing was voted the top jazz pianist in England and won that title seven years in a row. By then he had absorbed the styles of all the major jazz pianists and was often billed as "England's Art Tatum" or Teddy Wilson, or as "The Number One Boogie Woogie Pianist." This gift, however, later proved to have a boomerang effect.


Encouraged by earlier support from musicians like Glenn Miller, pianist Mel Powell — even Fats Waller — and sensing he could go no further in England, Shearing went to the states in 1946 to test the jazz waters. Understandably, his expectations were high, but, as he told John S. Wilson in a 1986 New York Times article, "I went to see an agent. I played for him. I played like Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum and Fats Waller. The agent coldly asked, 'what else can you do?'"


Realizing that the originals could be heard in person almost any night, Shearing understood the need to forge an identity that would reach the public. He went home to woodshed and returned to the U.S. a year later.


His first job was at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street playing intermission for Sarah Vaughan. His pianistic prowess soon attracted attention, and the musicians' grapevine helped solidify his reputation. In some ways he was an astonishing performer, albeit a polished, eclectic one. However, in an era when identifiable styles were prized, Shearing had yet to establish a clear musical voice of his own.


That voice was not long in coming though. In January 1949, he led a quartet at the Clique Club on Broadway that featured clarinetist Buddy De Franco and emphasized smooth voicings and a subtle rhythmic approach. Drummer-composer Denzil Best, a master of the brushes, figured prominently in the overall group sound. After two weeks, De Franco left for other contractual commitments. Leonard Feather, who had arranged Shearing's immigration into the U.S., came up with the idea that gave the group a unique sound. Keeping drummer Best and bassist John Levy, who later became his manager, Shearing added vibraphonist Marjorie Hyams and guitarist Chuck Wayne. This proved to be an inspired move. By using an octave-unison voicing that simulated the old Glenn Miller sound, the group achieved a blend that was truly unique for a quintet. Shearing had also perfected his "locked hands" block chord technique by this time, and he utilized this chordal approach to fill out the guitar-vibraphone lines. This piano style was originated by Milt Buckner, but Shearing was (and is) harmonically more complete, and he also can move chordally at amazing speed. He never fails to dazzle audiences with this device in his solos. Nat King Cole also had great success with the block chord style which he used with extreme sensitivity and swing.


After some break-in gigs at Cafe Society Downtown in New York and The Blue Note in Chicago, the group played The Embers and Birdland in New York, the latter being the jazz mecca of the time. Success was imminent.


And when their MGM recording of SEPTEMBER IN THE RAIN was released in February 1949, the Shearing quintet was catapulted into instant national fame. It was a tremendous hit, and the rest is jazz and commercial music history. Many hits followed, all with essentially the same sound, using the same arranging formula. The arranging duties were originally divided between George and Marjorie Hyams, who, in addition to being a wonderful vibes player, projected a beautiful and gracefully dignified presence. And this was at a time when there were virtually no women on jazz bandstands (Mary Lou Williams and Marian McPartland excepted).


This newly-found identity lasted for twenty-nine years, and as Shearing told John S. Wilson in the aforementioned New York Times article, "The last five years I played on automatic pilot. I could do the whole show in my sleep."


The quintet disbanded in 1978, and since then, Shearing has been working mostly in a duo setting with a top caliber bassist, like Don Thompson or Neil Swainson, both Canadians. He also has expanded his activities to include such diverse projects as Mozart performances with symphony orchestras and collaborations with Mel Torme, Carmen McRae, Jim Hall and other favorites of his. He even did a stint as a disc jockey on WNEW in New York and did some teaching workshops.


Between 1949 and 1978, the quintet underwent many personnel changes, and quite a few major artists got their careers launched as group members. Among them are vibists Gary Burton and Gal Tjader and guitarists Toots Thielemans and Joe Pass. His rhythm sections have included other "bests" besides Denzil. At various times, world class musicians like bassists Al McKibbon, Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier helped make the music gleam. Crosby and Fournier also figured prominently in the success of the Ahmad Jamal Trio.


In 1954 Shearing added conga drummer Armando Peraza. The gradual introduction of Latin rhythms led to the group's often sounding like an authentic Afro-Cuban ensemble. Shearing, in particular, mastered the idiom.


As a composer, Shearing revealed himself to be just as adept and creative as he is as a pianist. lullaby of BIRDLAND turned out to be not only the de rigueur theme song for any artist working at that club, but it became one of the most performed and profitable jazz standards of all time. Shearing also composed complex bebop lines like CONCEPTION, (a favorite of Bud Powell's) and commercial bolero type pieces like BLACK SATIN, the title piece of one of his most popular easy listening albums.


As the quintet became more commercial sounding, the "politically correct" wing of the jazz press became almost dismissive of Shearing's talents. In this regard, he got somewhat of a bad rap. Although he was not the first major jazz artist to come under fire from the purists — even Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington took heat for bowing to the realities of show business — critics in the fifties and sixties were intolerant of the financial vagaries of the jazz life. The more successful an artist became, the more he was accused of selling out.


George Shearing's ability to play and actualize just about anything he can hear has tended to obscure his true creativity. To use a musician's phrase to describe a colleague with a good ear, George can hear paint dry. But even though he can replicate any style in or out of jazz, he is not a walking musical repertory company. Rather, he is like someone who speaks many languages fluently. In his case, swing, bebop, Latin, classical, or anything that strikes his fancy, is effortlessly translated into music either at the keyboard or to manuscript. Of course, his composing is often dictated to a sighted transcriber. That he chose to channel this embarrassment of riches into an ensemble sound is, contrary to some critical opinion, a positive thing. The quintet, on balance, left a recorded legacy that served both the jazz and general public.


1949 was the height of the bebop movement. Except for very young musicians, and a small coterie of open-eared fans, the jagged rhythms, near frenetic virtuosic solos, and hard-to-follow melodic lines were difficult to "groove" to by the majority of casual listeners. Even Dizzy and Bird had their detractors. However, the Shearing quintet made soothing consonant sounds. Even when playing bop lines like CONCEPTION or CONFIRMATION, the cushiony sound of the brushes, the blend of the vibes and guitar and Shearing's non-percussive piano made obtuse and complicated figures very accessible. Much of the success of this group as well as the Nat King Cole Trio, the Red Norvo Trio and the Modern Jazz Quartet had to do with the absence of trumpets or saxophones, which are harsh sounding to the jazz-lite listener.


Also, Shearing wisely chose many standard songs to play, thereby inviting non-jazz fans in, instead of chasing them away, as the bop originators often unwittingly did. However, the social implications of bebop are a big subject, and they are covered in depth elsewhere.




If George Shearing has one unique musical attribute, it is his piano sound. No one has produced a more beautiful or crystalline sonority from the instrument. This is a subjective opinion, of course, because this writer is also a jazz pianist. I think Shearing is one of the most imaginative and sensitive ballad players of our time.


Not the least of his gifts is his harmonic imagination. All jazz pianists are forever searching for different ways to re-harmonize standards. We all have our pet substitute changes. Shearing, however, rivals Tatum, Hank Jones and Bill Evans in that department. Especially interesting is the way he handles inner voicings — his voice leading is impeccable. He has written many folios of his re-harmonizations, which are a wonderful reference for any musician who wants to expand his or her harmonic vocabulary. [emphasis mine]


As far as Shearing's later attempts to reach a truly mass market with strings, etc., they are beyond the scope of this project. The popular easy-listening albums like BLACK SATIN are unfailingly musical, even if they are short on substance. This collection by virtue of focusing on live recordings is, in most cases, very rich in substance. They represent the quintet at its finest.”


Monday, August 13, 2018

Nat King Cole Sings and George Shearing Plays" - An Unlikely Pairing

© -Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“At the time of their births the chances of the two principals' in this lively and appealing album ever meeting, let alone combining forces in such an entrancing set of performances, would have been considered so remote as to be statistically insignificant. And on the face of it, what happened here probably should not have happened at all, for the two men could not have had more widely different backgrounds.
- Pete Welding, Jazz author, critic


“You never lose that Jazz feeling.”
- Nat “King” Cole to Don Freeman, Downbeat, October 6, 1950


“Some of the best news I've received in a long time came to me when I heard that one of my favorites albums of all times was to be re-released...the album I made with Nat Cole.
Words could never express the joy I felt during the entire time that this album was being made. There was, first of all, the meeting of the two musical minds. Then, there were the countless surprises that Nat threw at me. Let me give you an example. When Nat suggested that we do "Pick Yourself Up," my interest wasn't that high. I had recorded this in 1949 at a tempo which no longer excited me. Now, here came Nat with a very fresh approach...a tempo which would swing into the middle of the next year and a relaxed feeling that allowed time for the rather clever lyric to be thoroughly digested.
Ralph Carmichael, my partner in crime in the arranging department, always seemed to anticipate my musical thoughts and provided many of his own...thus making this collaboration most joyous.
I've worn out my copy of this album and the copies of many of my friends. Now, here it is on CD. This is why I say, "Some of the best news I've received in a long time came to me...." Enjoy it as much as I do.”
- George Shearing


When you reflect on the opening quotation by Pete Welding, the existence of the music on Nat King Cole Sings and George Shearing Plays could be the stuff that helps you believe in miracles.


Miracles notwithstanding, if your collection doesn’t include this recording, remedy that omission as soon as possible. You won’t regret it.


Aside from the fact that as pianists, both were enormous influences on the stylistic development of many of the great post World War II Jazz piano players, I always thought that George Shearing and Nat King Cole were responsible for some of the most beautiful Jazz ever created on the planet.


I was reminded of this fact recently went I heard on the car radio their version of the Bill Davis & Don Wolf tune - Azure-Te’. I [safely] hurried home from the errands that I was engaged in to locate the album containing their rendition of this song and, as a result, was pleasantly reacquainted with one of my all-time favorite albums – Nat “King” Cole Sings The George Shearing Quintet Plays [Capitol CDP 7 48332 2].


As an added bonus, when the recording was re-mastered and issued as a compact disc, Pete Welding was asked to provide the following informative and insightful insert notes which the editorial staff of JazzProfiles thought you might enjoy reviewing.


“At the time of their births the chances of the two principals' in this lively and appealing album ever meeting, let alone combining forces in such an entrancing set of performances, would have been considered so remote as to be statistically insignificant. And on the face of it, what happened here probably should not have happened at all, for the two men could not have had more widely different backgrounds. The singer, Nat "King" Cole, black, son of a Baptist minister, had been born March 17, 1917, in Birmingham, Ala., but was raised in Chicago where his family moved when he was still a youngster. The pianist, George Shearing, white, blind from birth, had been born on August 13, 1919, in London, England, where he was reared, studied music at The Linden Lodge School for the Blind, and spent the first three decades of his life. So, not only were the two distanced -and widely- by geography, but by profound cultural differences as well.


The likelihood of their paths ever crossing was slim indeed, but cross they did, and often enough so that, in time, it came to seem inevitable that one of those meetings would be memorialized on record. You hold the results in your hand. And while it would be fatuous to suggest they were somehow fated to make this album together, the incontrovertible fact is that with each passing year - as the two came of age, began pursuing careers in music, gained increasingly in experience, proficiency, mastery and, finally, great popularity - that eventuality came ever closer of being realized. The actuality took place in December of 1961 under the auspices of Capitol Records, to which both men were under contract, when at four recording sessions held on successive days the present set of performances was undertaken.


The common ground on which the two met was jazz, that vital and absorbing expressive idiom which is one of the glories of American music. Not only did Cole and Shearing share a deep commitment to this music, but each had perfected a singular mastery in its performance. Cole, let us not forget, had started his career as a jazz pianist and was well on the way to becoming one of the truly great ones until his accelerating success as a popular singer gradually led to his putting aside this aspect of his talents. As a young piano student in Chicago, he had been drawn to the music, and specifically to the playing of Earl "Fatha" Hines, one of the most brilliant, original and influential pianists in all of jazz history. Fired by Hines' compelling, audacious music, Cole set about mastering the rudiments of jazz piano, assimilated a number of other influences, and by the late 1930s had fashioned a mature, distinctive approach of his own, light, graceful and swingingly melodic  much like Teddy Wilson's in fact. His fast-growing command - was evidenced as early as 1936, when he made his first recordings with a sextet led by his bassist brother Eddie Cole.


During the remainder of the decade he sharpened his skills through playing engagements in his native city, which led to his forming a band to tour with the road company of Eubie Blake's Shuffle Along musical revue. The show folded in Long Beach, Ca., but Cole soon found work as a solo pianist in various Southern California nightspots. He formed his celebrated trio for a brief engagement at Los Angeles' Swanee Inn, and proved so popular that the trio was held over for more than a year. Incidentally, it was there, in answer to a patron's insistent requests, that Cole began singing, meeting with such favorable response that he soon was doing it more and more frequently. An engagement at Hollywood's Radio Room, where he was heard by record store proprietor Glenn Wallichs, led to Cole's being asked to join the artist roster of the record firm Wallichs, songwriter Johnny Mercer and film executive B.G. DeSylva had formed in late 1942, Capitol Records.


The rest is, as they say, history. From his very first recording session for the new label Cole achieved success with a song he had written Straighten Up And Fly Right, which reportedly sold half-a-million copies within a few months of its release. In the ensuing years Cole soon had outstripped that promising start, achieving phenomenal success with a long, uninterrupted succession of hit records, more than 75 of his singles placing on the lists of best-selling records from 1944 right up to his untimely death in 1965, many of them among the most successful popular recordings of our times, These were complemented by sizable numbers of long-play albums in which he demonstrated his fetching, seductive way with classic ballad standards, in the interpretation of which he was rivaled only by such superlative vocalists as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and others of this rank, and in occasional instrumental programs which showed he had lost none of his formidable pianistic wizardry.


At much the same time Cole was investigating jazz, George Shearing was doing the same several thousand miles away in London. The blind pianist had first been attracted to the music through the recordings of Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson and other leading American jazz musicians he had heard as a teenager. Like Cole, he taught himself how to play the challenging new music, and by the middle 1930s had progressed so well that he began performing at jam sessions and in small clubs around London, which soon led to his first recordings, made in 1939 for Decca Records. Membership in the orchestra of Claude Bampton, comprised of 17 blind musicians, was followed by solo work, several years as featured pianist with the popular Ambrose Orchestra, and continuing recording activity under his own name, primarily as a soloist, though occasionally with small groups, as he gained in confidence and ability. Through the 1940s, in fact, his domination of his instrument in British jazz circles was virtually uncontested, Shearing topping the annual Melody Maker polls as the nation's foremost pianist seven years running.


A less dedicated or ambitious musician might have been satisfied with this achievement, but not Shearing. He knew that in order to grow further as a player he would have to test himself against the music's best and brightest. While this occasionally was possible in London when, as happened from time to time, he was able to play with visiting American jazz musicians, he felt the best way to go about it would be to place himself in a situation that ensured his being challenged by them on a steady, continuing basis. This, of course, meant moving to the U.S., and specifically to New York City, then as now the major center of jazz activity and a virtual proving ground for the serious player. Accordingly, Shearing made the move in December of 1947 and spent most of the following year performing at New York's Three Deuces, first as a soloist, later leading his own trio and quartet.


In 1949 he made his first recordings as leader of the George Shearing Quintet, one of the most distinctive and freshest-sounding small groups in all of modem jazz. The invigoratingly novel voicing Shearing devised for its instrumentation  - piano, guitar, vibraharp, bass and drums - was bright, appealingly elegant and the very epitome of "cool." Graceful, exuberant, finely detailed, easily accessible to the casual listener yet possessing more than enough focused invention to satisfy the most demanding jazz fan, the quintet was an immediate sensation. It quickly became one of the most popular small groups of the period, touring and performing incessantly, and enjoying great popular success with its recordings as well, a number of them, September In The Rain for example, among the most played records of the time. During the 1950s, in fact, the quintet's shimmering, distinctive sound was all but ubiquitous, heard everywhere - on radio and television, in films, theaters and nightclubs, at wedding receptions, country club dances and every like event that called for sophisticated music. In the decades since, it has been one of the most enduringly popular of all instrumental groups and its leader widely regarded for the consistently high standards of poised, elegant musicianship he has maintained in the group, which have made its music so exhilarating and enjoyable.


It was these qualities that made its collaboration with Nat Cole so special. And so apt. For the singer, who had made his earliest vocal recordings with the backing of his own jazz trio, to be accompanied by so adroit and accomplished a group as Shearing's must have been something like coming home to a familiar, welcoming environment. And for Shearing, a more than passable vocalist himself, as he's demonstrated on occasion, working with Cole was a special, joyous experience - as satisfying artistically as it was gratifying personally - one which the pianist recalls with great fondness and joy as one of the high points of his career, more than a quarter-century after it occurred.


As the enclosed compact disc shows so clearly, George's recollection is correct. What he, Cole and co-orchestrator Ralph Carmichael (whose contribution should not pass unmentioned) produced over those four days in December, 1961, was indeed memorable music, as enjoyable and deeply satisfying today as when first recorded. Each man was intimately familiar with, and appreciative of the other's music, which made their collaboration not only possible but stimulating and enjoyable as well. As a result, the recording sessions went smoothly and quickly-and happily, Shearing recalls -producing a program of performances that, because of the mutual respect Cole and Shearing had for one another, breathe warmth and affection and sincerity.


And above all else beauty It's the presence of this latter quality that has caused Shearing to have, as he notes, worn out several copies of this album over the last two-and-a-half decades. That's something that you and I, thanks to the technological miracle that has given us the compact disc, will never have to worry about. We can play this music as often as George has, and more, and it'll never wear out. And that's something, I think you'll agree, we can take the greatest pleasure in  - enduring music in an enduring format, Nat "King" Cole sings - George Shearing plays; we listen and marvel. Again and again and again, as often as we like.”


- Pete Welding


The following video contains a nice collection of images of both Nat and George with the Pick Yourself Up cut from the CD serving as the sound track.