© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Passion . . . that's what he had . . . passion. And that's what all great artists have. A sprinkling of the demonic, a yearning for the tender, and a straight line to joy.”
The above and following enthusiastic remarks by the actor (and sometime pianist) Dudley Moore appeared as liner notes for Easy to Love [Emarcy 832 994-2], a 1988 collection of previously unreleased cuts - all recorded in the early sixties — by Erroll Garner.
Moore, a long-time Garner devotee who died in 2002, was renowned as an actor in film, theater, and television. Dudley was also an accomplished musician and composer, at home in both the classical and jazz genres. London-born, Moore began his piano studies at the age of six, and went on to advanced classical studies on piano, organ and violin, and composition and arranging, at Oxford's Magdalen College, where he earned degrees in 1957 and 1958. He later performed with Johnny Dankworth's orchestra, and with his own trio. In the closing years of his life, he appeared as a guest soloist with major symphony orchestras, during breaks in his film schedule.
“Listening to this selection of Garner's recordings was a chilling experience - chilling in the sense that one knows one is listening to an exception — one is listening to a phenomenon. No matter what the rational opinions are, one comes to the conclusion that here is a uniqueness that is almost unbearably strong. They say that certain types of genius are the result of untiring practice and application — terms which of course double to mean enthusiasm or passion — but what exactly Garner had to do to acquire this unique tonal vocabulary is hard to understand completely. Suffice it to say that his persona is streaked in bold and subtle flashes across his music. You didn't have to know the man to feel, what is certainly for one very brief moment in history, a unique singing voice. To achieve this at all on a piano is no mean feat, but it is not the technical aspect of his playing that astonishes, although that is one thing to knock one off one's feet. It is the fact that the technical aspect evaporates in this spectacular contact that is made through a music that is entirely Garner's own.
Mind you, there are parts of Garner that I don't appreciate at all or find particularly remarkable. I don't think his wayward introductions are necessarily an extraordinary feature of his work. Or, that the sentimentality he sometimes allows himself in unabashed ballads is particularly interesting. However, when he plays a ballad with that combination of deep feeling and caressing rhythm, I sag with the burden of gratitude. I may be getting purple with my prose at this point, but what can one do in the face of this gift that is extended to us all. Not everyone knows, realizes, or understands the importance of Erroll Garner. He understood it, I'm sure, but also would probably have been too reticent to admit it. Criticism was sometimes blind to it, although his public acceptance was always gigantic. He once said, "Some people know what life's about and some people don't." The spontaneity and relaxed growth in his music pleads a knowledge of life and I guess if you don't get it, you don't get it.
This does not imply membership in some darkly exclusive club, but merely the futility of describing a feeling. I love music that lives and breathes and encourages life. I hate music that conjures up an apparition of death. That doesn't mean to say that I don't love music that is inspired by requiems or death itself. However, the outcome of even such potentially morbid music has to be joy. The optimism of life, of being alive, of feeling alive, of communication, of love . . . that's what Garner is and what he does for me and will always do for me. That's why I love to try and play like him. His music has got into my veins and I wish that everyone could be as drugged as I am with this particular non-chemical. Long live Garner. I bless that day in 1957 when I heard him for the first time. I shall always treasure the experience and I am able to relive it, listening to this music today. I never met the man to say hello and thank you. I didn't have the nerve to do that, even though I did spend a couple of times in a club close to his arm and at several of his concerts in London. One day he came into a club where I was playing and I was so nervous, - I so wanted to share my love for him and how he had affected me — that my panic allowed me to spill a bottle of Coca-Cola on the middle of the keyboard to the point where all the keys stuck together and I could only play on either side of this sticky log.
Garner brought to the piano an element which I don't think anyone else had previously provided - the element ol sensuality. It was engendered by a true rubato in the sense that Chopin understood - that is, a left hand which is ostensibly regular and a right hand that moves freely against it, "the result of momentary impulse," as the great pianist Josef Hofmann said. (He also maintained, rightfully I think, that . . . "Perfect expression is possibly only under perfect freedom.")
This rubato is a rarity in any music and finds its true fruition in Garner's playing, a smooth, undulating arm that floats and caresses sweetly above a gently pulsing bass. Garner must be one of the very few who can soothe our souls with this most elusive of arts. There's no doubt in my mind that his unique and enlivening rhythmic approach is an irrefutable addition to musical language, nourished as it is by the poignant, passionate, or pagan palette (!) if you'll once again excuse my purple prose ol his harmony.
It is interesting to note that often after a passage or phrase of considerable rubato where the melody notes hit just behind the basic beat, Garner will, in the last couple of bars (generally of an eight-bar phrase), get right on to the beat again not to steady himself like a tightrope walker using the bar, but just because it feels good in the style. I've never known Garner to not to put out a hand to steady himself, as it were. There's never a moment when one says, "Whoops!"
It is extraordinary that this man, who did not read or write music, could have produced such richness of rhythm and harmony, even a latent counterpoint - for his two hands enjoyed the sweetest, cooperative marriage. Jazz can, in one way, resemble painting by numbers. The chordal system that emerged from its roots, which was then enriched by the advent of impressionist harmony, has been organized into a figured bass concept like that of former times (the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries). The result is a system that is relatively easy to learn wherein chordal inversions are left to the individual taste of the pianist, who has the advantage of being able to play more than one note at once. All I can say is, thank God Garner chose the piano as his means of expression, since he would not have been perhaps quite as remarkable on a one-line instrument. We would not have had the glory of the interplay between his two hands or the piquant structure of his chords and textures.
Although Garner seemed to hit a few clankers now and then in terms of melody, these are never really wrong notes so much as moments of intense creativity that have spiralled off. Rhythmically he never fails us and that is probably the most remarkable thing. He really doesn't, not even when he seems to be even remotely strapped by the sheer physical stuff that one encounters on a piano from time to time. Relaxation was of total importance to him. Lesser artists like to mystify us with claims of difficulty. When Garner decides to combine his many colors we are most nobly fed — an infectious notion of rhythm and sensual swing with a flirtatious and coquettish melodic gift, an ability to take us with him into areas of sweet contentment where our heads all bob gently and thankfully like mesmerized turkeys.
It is more than great octave work that he indulged in. It succeeds without apparent effort and he even seems to be trying new things as he plays without being at all perturbed at the prospect of keeping things in rhythm.
Everything is always within the style even when the actual notes may not perhaps be exactly what he wanted. But, then again, everything sounds right because it swings and because his spirit leaps out to us.
His endings almost seem nonchalant, as if to say "I've done this one - let's get to the next." This spontaneity is paralleled in his almost exclusive love of the first take; his enthusiasm ran hot and he knew he would not be able to give the same spirit out again, whatever notes had hit the floor. This did not mean of course that he was unwilling to play the same tune more than once in quick succession, he could do so, but often chose to do so in different styles and tempos, refreshing the tune each time with new invention.
Garner often seems to bend notes, sliding, as he does, with his right hand from black to white keys. Thus he favors the kevs based on flats, where such opportunities abound, notably the keys of D flat,, E flat,, G flat, A flat,, and B flat, as appear in these selections. The result is melody which has the liquidity of a singer's portamento [sliding from one note to another]. He gives us much succulent ornamentation and gentle repetition of little motifs to gladden the heart. Sometimes, as in "Somebody Loves Me," he slows the tempo down as he digs in with more voluptuous rhythm as the choruses continue. He often jokes with us, as in the staccato-octave opening chorus of "Taking a Chance on Love" with its typical midkeyboard sax-section-like accompanying "woofs." He often plays his own Garner riff, as in "Lover Come Back" or "Easy to Love"; there are quotations from other melodies and often, dotted eighth-notes in the bass which bestride the beat merrily like a child, plonking about in seven-league boots, tugging gaily-fluttering kites gently and playfully in his right hand. And sometimes, he will delay the emergence of the melody as in the reckless beginning of the third chorus of "Somebody Stole My Gal" and then make us grin with his wonderful octave work in the last chorus. These are all expressions of a humor that pervades his work almost constantly - a humor that is often so much more telling than graver utterances of other jazz performers. Humor is intrinsic to Garner's nature and is a companion to his feeling tor life, to the joy and sensuality of his playing. Humor resides in the flesh of his music in both perky and witty guise.
To my mind, Erroll Garner is probably the most important pianist that I have ever heard and that includes classical pianists. The problems in his music are different from those facing a classical pianist; the answers are complex. He may sort of know what he's going to play to a greater or lesser degree from a vocabulary that expands gently and continuously. But we are always delighted with the freshness and the originality of approach, a desire to communicate. He cultivated his garden wonderfully, completely, roundly. For those people who don't hear or feel his soul, I am sorry. I don't know how one could explain the feeling to anyone. However, I think he speaks to the heart of all of us, even to those who only feel what he says, subconsciously.
In the long run, who cares it his right hand was always lagging at just the perfect point behind the left. In the long run, who cares if his right hand runs were always structurally impeccable; they actually were an infallible feature of his relaxation, plunging us into happiness and wild enthusiasms. The feeling that that particular technique exuded was one of being alive.
In the long run, who cares that his sense of texture was extraordinarily original; it was, more importantly, rich. Who cares that his hands were big and could cover this or that interval with ease; they delighted us with unparalleled, unchangeable octave work. Ultimately all these "things" gave us more pleasure. The technique cannot be separated from the music, but the music is infinitely more important. Passion . . . that's what he had . . . passion. And that's what all great artists have. A sprinkling of the demonic, a yearning for the tender, and a straight line to joy.”