Friday, August 17, 2018
© -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.
Thursday, August 16, 2018
© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Frequent visitors to the pages might recall a posting earlier this year  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:
- 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.
- He harmonized whole melodies with his block chords, when other pianists were playing single lines, adding harmonic appeal for the listener
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- Part of the appealing sound he created was often having small intervals at the bottom of the voicing – minor and major 2nd intervals
- His use of minor six chords I think stands out as a sound of the emerging schools of cool jazz.
- He would create interesting and appealing harmonic movement in the inner voices while on a more stationary chord
- 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
- 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.
- He played these chords more smoothly than everyone else – as well as very incisively - had more articular subtlety and wider emotional range.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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.
- 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
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.
Tuesday, August 14, 2018
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.”