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."

1 comment:

  1. I just found the link to your site on Rifftides - great stuff, Steve. My employer may not be too happy - you've just added to my on-the-job R&R!

    Vancouver, BC


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