Monday, June 9, 2014

The New George Shearing Quintet: That Shearing Sound

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

“Shearing has always been a bit of a puzzle. At the keyboard he could do almost anything he put his mind to—as demonstrated by his various recordings of "Lullaby of Birdland," over the years, in a daunting range of styles; yet the question remains of what it was he really wanted to achieve as an artist. He earned his best sales with a sound that veered dangerously close to elevator music, and even his finest work seems to convey the facile elegance of a player who didn't want to work up a sweat. But just when one was tempted to dismiss Shearing as a shallow popularizer, he would deliver some very deep performance that would show the levels this artist was capable of reaching.”
- Ted Gioia, The Jazz Standards, A Guide to the Repertoire [p. 248]

At the time he wrote the insert notes to That Shearing Sound: The New George Shearing Quintet [Telarc CD-83347],  Leonard Feather and George Shearing had been friends for over a half century.

Its all here in Leonard's essay including why George decided to re-establish his quintet after a hiatus of almost 20 years.

“Although the name of George Shearing has been known worldwide for at least four decades, one of the least familiar aspects of his story is that he has enjoyed two separate careers.

He began at square one, an unknown making his record debut just before the onset of World War II. Over the next few years he made his way swiftly to the top, winning popularity polls, playing with England's top bands, recording regularly. He had scaled the heights, but one puzzling question remained: where do you go when you have done it all?

The answer, of course, was that he had done it all exclusively in England. The United States remained unknown territory for him, his recordings having remained unreleased there. As he found out during a brief visit to New York, if he had an American career in mind he would have to go back once again to square one.
That was how things went during late 1947 and all of 1948. The unknown youngster from England worked sporadically around 52nd Street, alone or with a trio. Word got around, but aside from a couple of sessions for Savoy he had no U.S. credits on record.

The turning point came when Albert Marx, a keen-eared talent scout, heard George leading a quartet at a club on the site of what later became Birdland. George was teamed with Buddy De Franco. The quartet might have enjoyed a fabulous life, had it not been for one hitch: De Franco was under contract to Capitol Records, but Marx wanted him and George for his own Discovery label.

Having known George from the early days in England, I talked over the problem and came up with a suggestion: why not try a quintet, with guitar and vibes instead of the clarinet? This had worked well in a couple of sessions I had organized, a Mary Lou Williams date with Margie Hyams on vibes, and a Slam Stewart session with Chuck Wayne on guitar.

"Let's try it," said George, taking the two musicians I had suggested — Hyams and Wayne — along with two who were already working with him, the bassist John Levy (who later gave up playing in order to concentrate on managing George and many other artists) and Denzil Best, a fine drummer and composer.

The Discovery session went off well, but meanwhile an offer had come from MGM Records to sign George exclusively with the quintet. In order to save his own original material for the first MGM session, George let me contribute several pieces for Discovery. There were hints here of the beginning of what came to be known as "the Shearing Sound," for which George's upper melody note was doubled on vibes with the lower note doubled on guitar.

In the course of working with the quintet, George achieved a blend that would soon establish this as the most popular new jazz group in America, or, for that matter, the world. After working his first in-person gig at Cafe Society, he soon found offers coming in to keep the format together, and following the recording of "September in the Rain" at the first MGM date, it was evident that the Shearing sound would produce a long series of hits.

Over the years the quintet became a launching pad for many soloists who went on to individual success: Toots Thielemans and Joe Pass on guitar, Gary Burton on vibes, Cal Tjader on percussion and vibes, Andy Simpkins on bass. By the 1970s George felt the time had come to vary the format, and began working in the duo setting that has served him well over the past two decades.

The present CD features an entirely different quintet. Neil Swainson had been George's regular bassist for six years; Louis Stewart had played guitar on a couple of previous dates. New to the Shearing entourage were the impressive vibraphonist Steve Nelson and the ex-Basie drummer Dennis Mackrell, of whom George comments: "If I ever have a record date coming up that calls for a drummer and Dennis is not available, I'll postpone the session. He's that good." ...

What struck me immediately on listening to this album was the extent to which the Shearing sound, now well over forty years old, has retained its validity. There have been many other Shearing settings over the years, each successful in its own way, but this innovative blend, which remained in power for many years, is as uniquely attractive today as it was when it enabled George Albert Shearing to conquer the world jazz scene.

— Leonard Feather”

Here’s George’s postscript:

“The year 1948 found me co-starring with Buddy De Franco at New York's Clique Club. Though Buddy and I have remained very good friends through the years, the time came, in 1949, for us to go our separate ways. Leonard Feather, with whom I have enjoyed a friendship since 1938, entered into the picture with a most useful idea. He advised keeping John Levy on bass and Denzil Best on drums and using Chuck Wayne on guitar and Marjorie Hyams on vibes. I had heard both players many times, so I had no trouble implementing Leonard's suggestion.

The rest is history until I disbanded the group in 1978. The main reason for the change was that I found myself putting the music on automatic pilot most of the time.

Through the years, the requests for the Quintet have been so numerous that I felt the time had come to address this issue "one more time." I must say that once I started writing the arrangements for this album, I was like a kid with a new toy. I woke up every day with another musical idea for the project. I trust that you will have as much fun listening to this album as I had writing for it and recording it.

In closing, I should like to thank Leonard Feather for his most valuable assistance and counsel throughout my career, both in America and in England. Leonard was an important part of my life long before the advent of the Quintet, and I felt it would be appropriate to ask him once again to make his contribution to another Quintet project.

— George Shearing”

And what better way to close this posting than with a video featuring images of Birdland, then and now, George Shearing , Louis Stewart, Steve Nelson, Neil Swainson and Dennis Mackrell performing George’s Lullaby of Birdland.?

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