Friday, April 15, 2011

Erroll Garner: The Nonpareil

“Erroll Garner was one of a kind. He was as outré as the great beboppers, yet bop was alien to him, even though he recorded with Char­lie Parker. He swung mightily, yet he stood outside the swing tradition; he played orchestrally, and his style was swooningly romantic, yet he could be as merciless on a tune as Fats Waller. He never read music, but he could play a piece in any key, and delighted in deceiving his rhythm sections from night to night. His tumbling, percussive, humorous style was entirely his own.”
Richard Cook & Brian Morton , The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

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

These days, it sometimes seems to me that “unique,” “peerless,” “one-and-only” and other, similar words and phrases are indiscriminately bandied about.

But they are appropriate in their use and meaning when applied to the music of Erroll Garner.

He was sui generis.

One of my earliest recollections of Jazz piano being played in an orchestral and percussive manner was on the 10” Columbia House Party EP entitled Here’s Here, He’s Gone, He’s Garner!  It contains an 8+ minute version of Erroll playing The Man I Love that moves from a stately Brahmsian introduction, to a majestically slow representation of the melody before devolving into chorus after chorus of up-tempo, pulsating and original improvisations whose conclusion always leaves me exhausted from the excitement they generate in my emotions.

Erroll plays his usual four-beats-to-the-bar left hand self-accompaniment, but his right hand is all over the middle and upper register of the piano with block chord phrases, rhythmic riffs interchanged with drum fills and single lines that weave a powerful elucidation of bop phrases.

Pianist Dick Katz, in his splendidly instructive essay entitled “Pianists of the 1940s and 1950s” that appears in editor Bill Kirchner’s The Oxford Companion to Jazz [New York: Oxford University Press, 2000], provides this description of Erroll Garner:

“Unique is an inadequate word to describe Erroll Garner. He was a musical phenomenon unlike any other. One of the most appealing performers in Jazz history, he influenced almost every pianist who played in his era, and even beyond. Self-taught, he could not read music, yet he did things that trained pianists could not play or even imagine. Garner was a one-man swing band, and indeed often acknowledged that his main inspiration was the big bands of the thirties – Duke, Basie, Lunceford, et al. He developed a self-sufficient, extremely full style that was characterized by a rock-steady left-hand that also sounded like a strumming rhythm guitar. Juxtaposed against this was a river of chordal or single note ideas, frequently stated in a lagging, behind-the-beat way that generated terrific swing.” [P. 365]”

And in Jazz Portraits: The Lives and Music of the Jazz Masters, Len Lyons had this to say about Erroll:

“An idiosyncratic improviser with a fertile imagination, Garner could be an effervescent, whimsical, bombastic, and always emotional—some­times within the same song. He made hundreds of recordings, most of them spontaneously, barely pausing between selections. Garner's style was un­mistakable: lush tremolo chords in the right hand, "strummed" left-hand block chords that kept precise time, elaborately embellished melodies, and a beat so polyrhythmic that the music seemed to be played in two distinct time signatures.

Influenced by Earl "Fatha" Hines, Teddy Wilson, the beat of the big bands, and later by the harmonies and phrasing of bebop, Garner carved a niche for himself that was too unique and specialized to leave room for followers. At the piano bench, he perched his diminutive frame on a telephone book to improve his reach, and he sang to himself in audible grunts and growls as he played. His impish humor came through in his music and his demeanor. …

Johnny Burke added the lyrics to Erroll’s Misty in 1959 and Johnny Mathis recording of it that year really served to enhance Garner’s popularity with both Jazz fans and the general public. Erroll wrote the tune while on a flight from San Francisco to Denver when a rainbow that he watched through a misted window of the plane inspired the song and its title.” [pp. 213-214].

In 1956, Columbia released Concert By The Sea on which Erroll is accompanied b bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Denzil Best.  It became one of the best selling Jazz albums of all time and has remained in print ever since.

A “behind-the-scenes” look at how this recording came about in provided in the following excerpt by Will Friedwald.

© -Will Friedwald, copyright protected; all rights reserved. Copyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Erroll Garner's Serendipitous Hit

The Wall Street Journal, SEPTEMBER 17, 2009

The pianist Erroll Garner was one of the great improvisers of all time -- and not exclusively in his music. As writer John Murphy notes, a New York Times profile of Garner in 1959 by John S. Wilson observed that the musician refused to make any kind of plan until the very last minute; he cooked elaborate dishes without the aid of a recipe book by simply throwing different ingredients together and tasting; he taught himself to play golf without instruction. He also played thousands of songs entirely by ear, without ever bothering to learn to read music, and composed many original tunes that way, including the standard "Misty." Therefore it shouldn't be surprising that Garner (1921-1977) made his best album -- the legendary "Concert by the Sea" -- practically by accident.

On Sept. 19, 1955, Garner (who is also represented on a wonderful new DVD of two concerts from Europe eight years later, "Live in '63 and '64," as part of the Jazz Icons series produced by Reelin' in the Years and available at performed at Fort Ord, an army base near Carmel, Calif., at the behest of disc jockey and impresario Jimmy Lyons. Martha Glaser, who served as Garner's personal manager for nearly his entire career, happened to be backstage when she noticed a tape recorder running. As she recalled for the Journal last week, it turned out that the show was being taped -- without Garner's knowledge -- by a jazz fan and scholar named Will Thornbury, strictly for the enjoyment of himself and his fellow servicemen. Ms. Glaser told him, "I'll give you copies of every record Erroll ever made, but I can't let you keep that tape." She took it back to New York (carrying it on her lap), where she assembled it into album form, titled it "Concert by the Sea," and then played it for George Avakian, who ran the jazz department at Columbia Records. Garner had actually left Columbia three years earlier, but, as Mr. Avakian recently told the Journal: "I totally flipped over it! I knew that we had to put it out right away."

When Columbia released "Concert by the Sea" a few months later, this early live 12-inch LP was a runaway sensation. It became the No. 1 record of Garner's 30-year career and one of the most popular jazz albums of all time. It's not hard to hear why: From the first notes onward, Garner plays like a man inspired -- on fire, even. He always played with a combination of wit, imagination, amazing technical skill and sheer joy far beyond nearly all of his fellow pianists, but on this particular night he reached a level exceeding his usual Olympian standard.

"Concert" begins with one of Garner's characteristic left-field introductions -- even his bassist and drummer, in this case Eddie Calhoun and Denzil Best, rarely had an idea where he was going to go. This intro is particularly dark, heavy and serious -- so much the better to heighten the impact of the "punchline," when Garner tears into "I'll Remember April." Originally written as a romantic love song, Garner swings it so relentlessly fast that you can practically feel the surf and breeze of the windswept beach image from the album's famous cover.

The sheer exhilaration of Garner's playing never lets up; even when he slows down the tempo on "How Could You Do a Thing Like That to Me" (a tune also known as Duke Ellington's "Sultry Serenade"), the pianist shows that he's just as adroit at playing spaces as he is at playing notes. The bulk of the album showcases his brilliant flair for dressing up classic standards such as "Where or When" (when Garner plays it, he leaves the question mark out -- you know exactly where and precisely when), but "Red Top" illustrates what he can do with a 12-bar blues and "Mambo Carmel" comes out of his fascination with Latin polyrhythms.

"Concert by the Sea" has never been off my iPod. Sadly, it's also one of the few classic jazz albums that has never been properly reissued. If any album's audio could use a little tender loving care, this is it; the original tape was barely a professional recording, and the bass, for instance, is barely audible. Sony issued a compact disc in 1991, but it's just a straight transfer of the 1955 master, and the digital medium makes it sound worse rather than better. …”

We also located this review of Telarc’s issuance of a multi-disc set of Erroll’s music by Mike Hennessey on the Garner Archives:

The Great Erroll Garner Legacy

By Mike Hennessey

Copyright © 1999-2002 Erroll Garner Archives

George Wein regarded him as "a great musical genius".

Hugues Panassié said of him, "He is not only the greatest pianist to emerge in jazz since World War II, but he is also the only one who has created a new style which is in the true jazz tradition, one which constitutes the essence of this music."

Mary Lou Williams revered him as "an asset and inspiration to the jazz world."

Steve Allen said he was "the greatest popular pianist of our century."

And Art Tatum called him, "My little boy."

They were talking about Erroll Louis Garner, the formidably accomplished and incredibly prolific self-taught pianist who first began exploring the piano keyboard at the age of three and went on to become a genuine jazz legend. His professional career spanned almost four decades and, in that time, he recorded for dozens of different labels, sometimes solo, mostly with his own trio. His recorded output occupies 33 pages in Tom Lord's The Jazz Discography. He made altogether more than 200 albums.

Garner was an amazingly energetic and resourceful musician with a phenomenal ear, remarkable memory and an astonishing independence of right and left hands. He was completely ambidextrous and could write and play tennis right or left handed with equal facility. He was also a sensitive, intelligent and rather shy man with a sunny disposition and an impish humour and he never took himself or his art too seriously.

A Telarc six-CD set of recordings made by Erroll Garner between December 1959 and October 1973 -- simply entitled Erroll Garner -- offers an abundant and representative sample of the prodigious and incomparable Garner legacy. The set comprises 12 original albums, now available for the first time in digital CD format -- altogether a selection of 118 numbers, the vast majority of which come from the great American popular song repertoire.”