Sunday, February 24, 2008

George Shearing: A Distinctive Sound

George Shearing once commented that: "The trick to this music is to get it out the head and into the hands."

The quest for every Jazz musician is to not only get it out of the head and into the hands, but to do so in a way that produces a sound that is distinctively their own. That is to say, instantaneously recognizable.

A few notes and you know that its trumpeter Louis Armstrong, or tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, or alto saxophonist Charlie Parker or clarinetist Benny Goodman. They produce a sound on their instrument like no other.

Indeed, some musicians actual change the sound of the instrument itself. For example, arranger/composer Gil Evans claims that Miles Davis "changed the sound of the trumpet."Perhaps the same assertion can be ascribed to Chet Baker as both he and Miles produced a soft, mellow, almost non-brassy sound from this brassiest of all brass instruments.

Achieving an instantly recognizable and unique sound on a percussive instrument such as the piano is an entirely different matter. George Shearing was able to accomplish this by using a block chord technique that blended his percussive piano with the vibraphonist and guitarist that formed the "front-line" in his quintet, to create what has come to be known as the "Shearing sound."

When hearing "The Shearing Sound," essentially the listener is experiencing a melody that is harmonized into four-parts in which Shearing's upper melody note is doubled on vibes and the lower note doubled on guitar

According to pianist Dick Katz who wrote the insert notes to The Complete Capitol Live Recordings of George Shearing [Mosaic Records MD-5 157], "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 can also move chordally at amazing speed."

"Nat King Cole also had great success with the block chord style which he used with extreme sensitivity and swing [as did pianist Red Garland]." [For a more technical discussion on block chords and voicing go here:].

2008 marks the 60th anniversary of George Shearing's appearance in a quartet with Bebop clarinetist Buddy DeFranco at New York's Clique Club [a site that later became the famous Birdland Jazz club] along with John Levy on bass and Denzil Best on drums.

Albert Marx heard the quartet and wanted to record it for his Discovery label, but a problem arose with Buddy DeFranco as he was under contract to Capitol Records.

George's friend and patron, the noted Jazz critic Leonard Feather, suggested that George retain Levy and Best on bass and drums respectively and add vibist Margie Hyams and guitarist Chuck Wayne for the Discovery session.

Although there were hints of what was to become know as "The Shearing Sound" in the recordings the group made for Marx's label, this unique sound would not fully materialize until a year later when the group was put under contract by MGM Records.

With the recording of September in the Rain at the first MGM date, which sold over 900,000 copies in 1949, it was evident that "The Shearing Sound" had arrived and that it would produce a long series of hits including George's original composition which was to become a Bebop anthem - Lullaby of Birdland.

The George Shearing Quintet was to last 20 years until it was disbanded in 1978. As George explained: "The main reason for this change was that I found myself putting the music on automatic pilot most of the time."

Over that 20 years period, "The Shearing Sound" manifested itself in quintet settings such as On the Sunny Side of the Strip [GNP Crescendo 9055]which was recorded in performance at the Crescendo on Sunset Strip with a group that featured the immensely talented Jean "Toots" Thielmanns on guitar, Emil Richards on vibes, Al McKibbon on bass and Percy Brice on drums. Shearing preferred his drummers to use brushes and Percy's marvelous work with these is on display throughout this recording.

Shearing also incorporated "The Sound" into a number of orchestral and big band recordings that were an immense commercial success for Capitol Records throughout the 1950s, but had limited musical substance. However, despite the prevalent view of the critics at the time, I would imagine that George enjoyed the material rewards that resulted from these successful recordings.

George was a great admirer of vibist Cal Tjader, particularly the Latin Jazz recordings that Cal was putting out for the Fantasy label in the 1950s. As a result he incorporated two of Tjader's sidemen into the quintet when Willie Bobo joined the group on drums and timbales which was also augumented when "The Shearing Sound" went into a Latin mood [mostly mambo, which was all the rage in the 1950s] with Armando Peraza on congos.

The large group setting was to even be resurrected with a stunningly beautiful and highly recommended album that he made with the legendary arranger Robert Farnon entitled How Beautiful is Night [Telarc Jazz CD-83325].

Guest artists was another format in which to display Shearing's distinctive style and one of my favorites albums is George Shearing and the Montgomery Brothers [Jazzland Original Jazz Classics OJCCD-040-2] with Wes Montgomery on guitar, Buddy Montgomery on vibes, Monk Montgomery on bass, and Walter Perkins on drums. What a shame this group of all-stars never toured!

Over the years, Shearing also brought "The Shearing Sound" into a series of collaborations with vocalists such as Peggy Lee, Dakota Staton, Ernestine Anderson, Nancy Wilson and Carmen McRae. My favorite among these is Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays [Capitol CDP 7 48332 2], two giants of Jazz in what is tantamount to a musical admiration society.

Its almost impossible to do justice to George Shearing's enormous talent in such a brief retrospective. His sense of humor alone would require an entire treatise devoted to it.

To help close this briefest of glimpses [no pun intended as George has been blind since birth] into "The Shearing Sound," let's turn to further comments from the Dick Katz insert notes to the Mosaic series.

"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 [via 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 the general public."

Monday, February 4, 2008

Hank Mancini: Jazz Musician

Following service with the Army during WW II, Hank Mancini embarked on a decade-long apprenticeship as a free lance arranger and musician that included work on radio shows, providing the music for little man Billy Barty’s vaudeville act, developing music for choreographer Nick Castle and being a house arranger for Universal-International Pictures for most of the 1950’s.

As Mancini explained: I once referred to the music department at Universal as a salt mine, but it was a good salt mine, and younger composers in film today do not have access to that kind of on-the-job training. Being on staff there I was called upon to do everything. I mean everything. Whenever they needed a piece of source music, music that comes from a source in the picture, such as a band, a jukebox, or a radio, they would call me in. I would do an arrangement on something that was in the Universal library, or I would write a new piece for a jazz band or a Latin band or whatever. I guess in every business you have to learn the routine--in film scoring, the clichés--before you can begin to find your own way.

Aided by his own big band background from his days growing up in West Aliquippa, PA and serving as an assistant to Max Adkins in Pittsburgh, PA, during this stint with Universal, Mancini was tapped to be the lead arranger for the two best-known swing biopics, "The Glenn Miller Story" in 1954 and "The Benny Goodman Story" in 1956.

Little did anyone realize at the time that these apprenticeship and time in the salt mine would ultimately make Mancini one of the most successful film composers of his time. He had a knack for writing catchy tunes which was one of the major keys to his success. And what a success it was as from 1958 and through most of the 1960’s, Mancini so dominated the television and film music scene that everything else seemed to be either an attempt to clone his sound or a reaction against it.

Hank’s breakthrough came though Blake Edwards, a former editor at Universal who remembered Mancini's work on Orson Welles' 1958 film noir, "Touch of Evil," in which Mancini supplemented the canned source music used for the soundtrack with some Jazz inspired music and included Conrad Gozzo on lead trumpet and Shelly Manne on drums to insure that the music was phrased properly.

Edwards was extremely impressed with Mancini’s score for this film and asked him to write music for a Peter Gunn, a new television series he was now directing. Since he was working on a small budget, Edwards asked Mancini to write for a jazz ensemble of 11 players

At a time when many television programs were using uninspired canned or “generic” orchestral backgrounds, Mancini opted to use modern Jazz with innovative Jazz themes accompanying Gunn’s every move. The harmonies fit the mood of the show, which was a key to its success, and they served to lend the character even more of an air of suave sophistication.

Mancini's music, “especially the pounding, menacing sounding theme,” proved almost as popular as the series, and RCA rushed out an album featuring the title song and other pieces. The label first offered Shorty Rogers the recording job, but he refused RCA’s request insisting they use the composer himself. Although television soundtracks had been released on albums before, Music from "Peter Gunn" was a phenomenon. It reached #1 on Billboard's chart, stayed there 10 weeks, and stayed on the list for the next two years. It was so successful, RCA put together a sequel and Mancini received an Emmy nomination for the theme and won two Grammy awards for the first album.

Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme with its hip, bluesy, brass texture and insistent piano-and-bass line became as associated with crime fiction as Monty Norman’s theme for the James Bond films was to become associated with spy films.

These two albums – The Music from Peter Gunn and More Music from Peter Gunn contain a wealth of small group and big band Jazz that is often overlooked either because of their commercial success at the time or because they were overshadowed by the many success of Mancini’s later career.

I thought it might be fun to remind readers of Jazz Profiles about this music or make it available through this review to listeners that may be new to it.

In talking with trumpeter Pete Candoli many years later, he shared the view that “In all the years of studio dates that I worked on in Hollywood, I’ve never enjoyed doing anything more. The musicianship on these dates was first-rate and Hank’s scores were always beautifully written and fun to play on.”

Vibist Victor Feldman also recalled these dates with fondness and affection: “These were some of my earliest studio recording dates and it was a thrill to be around such an incredibly talented bunch of musicians. Hank couldn’t have been nicer and the themes and ‘charts’ [arrangements] were so wonderfully crafted and just a blast to play.”

The first of these albums [the two have now been combined into one CD] highlights Mancini’s skill in employing an endless variety of orchestral voicing in making 11 musicians sound like a full big band. With the success of the initial album, RCA granted Hank a budget for a full orchestra and the sound he achieves on these tracks is even more rewarding.

Brassy trombones, either as soloists or in a trombone choir, chords played in the background by a “block chord” combination of vibes-piano-guitar as made famous by the George Shearing Quintet, descending figures being howled out through a bevy of French Horns, bass trombones blatting pedal tones [with or without mutes], “Shout Choruses” on tunes like Fall Out, Timothy,” and Blue Steel that would rival anything ever written by any big band arranger past or present, flute choirs phrased in unison with piccolos “on top” and the rarely heard bass flute [where else?] on the bottom, marimbas, a solo feature that highlights the brushwork of drummer iconic studio drummer Shelly Manne, beautiful ballads in the form of Dreamland, Joanna, Blues for Mother and A Quiet Gass – it’s all here; beautifully and consummately played by a group of world class musicians that populated the Hollywood Studios during the day and its many Jazz clubs at night.

In the music from Peter Gunn, Hank Mancini has given us a feast for the ages; do yourself a favor and partake.