Friday, December 30, 2016

George Shearing on Erroll Garner

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

- “Young Garner's father was a singer who played several instruments, as did his older brother, Linton. Erroll was an entirely self-taught musician who hit the keys when he was three years old and never did learn how to read music. But he played like no other pianist, and his flamboyant style was a delight to the ears. He would start a ballad with a long, discordant introduction that didn't even hint at the melody to come. At last when he swung into it, his left hand lay down chords like a guitar, keeping up a steady pulse, while his right hand never seemed to catch up, improvising chords or playing octaves that lagged way behind the beat for the rest of the number. Just a pinch of Fats Waller added spice.

I was fascinated by this fellow's joyously swinging piano, and I sought him out while Louis Prima was on. Erroll was anything but happy. He didn't know many people in New York and was downhearted. No one was interested in listening to him—Louis Prima was the showman attraction. And Erroll was only making forty dollars a week!

He told me he thought he'd go home soon, as it seemed nothing was going to happen for him in New York. Somehow, I had to stop him. I invited him home to 7 West 46th Street, showed him my rented Krakaur grand, and once he got started, it was impossible to pry him off the bench. Little did I know at the outset that he had a bad case of asthma and couldn't sleep lying down!” [p. 176]
- Fradley Garner’s superb English adaptation of Timme Rosenkrantz’s Harlem Jazz Adventures: A European Baron’s Memoir, 1934-1969.

“None of my prior experience with recording artists- Erroll Garner included- had prepared me for what happened when Erroll came in to record the session from which this album is produced.

In a business where the hoped-for standard is to complete four three-minute sides in three hours (with innumerable re-takes), and a recording director is ready to break out the champagne and caviar if he's finished half an hour ahead of schedule, Erroll smashed precedent with a performance that can be compared only to running a hundred yards in eight seconds- and with perfect form.

In other words: something that just can't happen. But this time it did. Erroll came into the studio a few minutes after his accompanists had arrived, took off his coat and had a cup of coffee, sat at the piano and noodled a bit, got up and removed his jacket, lit a cigarette, loosened his tie, and one minute past the hour announced he was ready. We hadn't discussed repertoire specifically; I had only told him that I wanted him to record some double-length numbers for long-play release. To give the engineers a chance to check balance, I asked Erroll to play something; anything. He played for a minute or so; the balance was fine, so when he stopped I asked Erroll through the control-room talk-back if he'd like to get started on the first number.

"Ready!" Erroll called.

"Fine," I said. "What's it going to be?"

"I don't know yet," said Erroll. "Just start that tape going."

The saucer-eyed engineers were no more startled than I, but I held back my surprise long enough to ask if Erroll would like me to signal him when he got around the six-minute mark.

"I might not remember to look," he said. "Let's just feel the time; OK?" Wondering what Dr. Einstein might have to say about that concept, I agreed; Erroll struck a couple of chords, nodded a tempo to bassist Wyatt Ruther and drummer Eugene “Fats” Heard, threw me a wink, and pointed to the recording light. I snapped it on, and he swung into an introduction which baffled all of us; what was it going to be? By what telepathy Ruther and Heard knew, I will never understand, but they followed Erroll unerringly into the chorus of Will You Still Be Mine?- a tune which, Erroll explained six minutes and twenty seconds later, they had never played together before.

But we didn't even have to play it back to know that it was a perfect master.

That's how the session went; with complete relaxation and informality, Erroll rattled off 13 numbers, averaging over six minutes each in length, with no rehearsal and no re-takes. Even with a half-hour pause for coffee, we were finished twenty-seven minutes ahead of the three hours of normal studio time-but Erroll had recorded over eighty minutes of music instead of the usual ten or twelve, and with no re-takes or breakdowns. And every minute of his performance was not only usable, but could not have been improved upon. He asked to hear playbacks on two of the numbers, but only listened to a chorus or so of each, before he waved his hand, said "Fine."

As for myself, I was happy with everything the first time 'round and repeated listenings to tests since then has confirmed that my first opinion was right.”
- George Avakian, Liner notes to Columbia 12" LP CL 535

“I never had an influence, for the simple reason that I loved big bands. I think this is where part of my style came from, because I love fullness in the piano. I want to make it sound like a big band if I can. I wasn't influenced by any pianist, because when I came up, I didn't hear too many. We used to have places like the Apollo Theater where you could go and hear big bands. They used to come to Pittsburgh and play at the Stanley Theater. I saw all the great bands. I knew Mary Lou Williams when I was a kid. When Fats Waller came, the piano was so sad that he played organ. I'll never forget how he took that organ, blended in with the band and made it sound like forty-four pieces. That sound was the most fantastic thing! I thought, oh my goodness, how can he do that? That's something new to me. I love Jimmy Lunceford, and I love Duke. Jimmy Lunceford and Count Basie taught me how to keep time. Those two bands really laid that on me, and it was a thrill. I think [Basie’s guitarist] Freddie Green is one of the greatest timekeepers in the world.”
- Erroll Garner to Art Taylor, Notes- and-Tones, Musicians-to-Musicians Interviews

Erroll Garner didn’t talk about Jazz very much. He just played it.  And could he ever bring it.

He wasn’t a particularly good interview. You can go through the Jazz literature, but you are more-than-likely to come away empty-handed if you are looking for an expository about Jazz piano by him as told to a Jazz essayist.  Fortunately, he did talk on occasion with other musicians and one of these musician-to-musician interviews can be found in drummer Arthur Taylor’s Notes- and-Tones.   

In many ways, Erroll Garner was an odd fellow, but “odd” in the unconventional sense of the word - unusual,  peculiar, bizarre, eccentric, unusual. And not in the more outlandish definition of the term such as quirky, zany, wacky, kooky, screwy, and freaky.

You get the sense of his uniqueness from the quotations that precede this introduction and also from the following assessment of his talent by fellow pianist, George Shearing, which is contained in his autobiography - Lullaby of Birdland.

“I first heard Erroll Garner on record in about 1945, and my thoughts about him have never really changed from that moment. I said to myself, "This is an astoundingly original style!"

From the outset, Erroll had a very personalized and highly unusual approach. In many ways, he was the most un-pianistic of all jazz pianists because he treated the instrument as if it were an orchestra, which made him one of a kind. If you're used to hearing records by Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, or Hank Jones, all of whom treat the piano very legitimately as a piano, you won't hear very much of that in Err oil's playing. It's true that he did use a lot of single-note solos, but they were more than equaled by what I call his "shout" playing, the technique that he used after he'd finished such a solo. Rather than his fingers just cascading up and down the keys, he'd play these big, massive chords, which he used as what big band arrangers call a "shout," just like a huge ensemble of brass and saxophones. He would do that for four or eight bars followed by another four-bar single-note solo, all the time keeping a steady four to the bar with his left hand. It was almost as if he had Basic's guitarist Freddie Green, with his perfect time, kept prisoner inside his left hand. Regardless of how much his right hand lagged behind the beat, that left hand was always the time governor. There's never been another pianist quite like him, and I don't think there ever will be.

I first met Erroll in person after I'd moved to the United States, when he came back to New York from the West Coast, and I was playing opposite him at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street in 1948—a gig which lasted for quite some time. He was leading the Erroll Garner Trio, which was no less a line-up than Erroll on piano, Oscar Pettiford on bass, and J. C. Heard on drums. It was just ridiculous what they did, they were such a tight group.

Perhaps the best estimation of anyone's talent is, firstly, originality, which Erroll had in spades, and secondly, the musical and technical ability to put that originality into practice. His talent wasn't about being able to play everybody else off the stage by mastering their style and then some, but about being himself. It didn't matter to him what kind of piano he was playing — good, bad, indifferent, they were all the same to him — nor did it seem to affect him if the audience was talking. He would just play up a storm.

Nobody else can play the way Erroll Garner did. I try to get close to it from time to time, and I received a nice compliment from Erroll's manager Martha Glaser, when she said that I'm probably the closest. That's good enough for me, because that's all I want to do—be as close as I can when I'm representing his style. I sometimes used to kid my audience by saying that Erroll and I were always being mistaken for each other, which is ludicrous, really, because he was much shorter than I am. But I loved Erroll.

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