Wednesday, July 1, 2015

My Travels With Erroll Garner

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

Back in the day, many of my earliest recordings were 331/3 rpm, 10” EPs [an abbreviation of extended play]. Budgetary concerns were a factor at the time as I could usually buy two EP’s for the price of one 12” LP.

The local record store kept a good stock of Jazz EP’s and the proprietor was more than generous in allowing me time to browse the inventory and read the liner notes.  Columbia House Party EPs were often a special buy at the store when they were priced at .99 cents.

As I held a copy of He’s Here He’s Gone He’s Garner [Columbia House Party EP CL 2606] in my hands, I had no idea who Erroll Garner was, but I knew and trusted the judgment of George Avakian, the author of its liner notes, because he was the producer of Dave Brubeck’s Columbia LP’s and these were among my favorites.

George’s liner notes for the Brubeck Quartet LPs on Columbia were very instructive and I learned a lot about how to listen to Jazz from George's annotations.

And boy am I glad I had faith in George's judgment because I bought He’s Here He’s Gone He’s Garner [Columbia 10” EP CL 2606], took it home and couldn’t stop playing it for days. I particularly liked listening to Erroll’s version of The Man I Love because it contains an unexpected tempo change, one that I had not heard before.

Since that first “meeting” I have “traveled” with Erroll on a number of musical journeys to far flung places like Carmel-By-The-Sea in California and Paris [the latter a double LP on Columbia which followed the blockbuster Concert By The Sea Carmel LP, also on Columbia], not to mention the many visits to record stores to acquire more of his music

Whenever I want to experience the pure joy inherent in Jazz, I put on an Erroll Garner record.

Here’s the reason I took that first step into Garnerland.

He’s Here He’s Gone He’s Garner [Columbia 10” EP CL 2606]
By George Avakian

“These performances are taken from the astonishing Erroll Garner's first recordings after a serious auto crash threatened his career in the spring of 1956. Erroll, laid up for weeks with a concussion, had been out of the hospital a few days when he got back to the piano on a Tuesday, noodled around a bit, and decided he'd like to take a shot at a recording session. At the last minute, late that week, some open time developed at Columbia's 30th Street studio, and Erroll — whose regular sidemen were off, waiting for his recovery — called two old friends and staged a reunion around the Steinway which is reserved for Columbia's Masterworks pianists.

Bassist Al Hall and drummer Specs Powell had worked with Erroll in the past, but they went into this session stone cold. Erroll himself appeared to be a bit doubtful as he strolled into the studio, looking heavier than usual under the influence of rest and a regular diet, but looking a little stiff across the shoulders, too. His injuries still bothered him somewhat, but he was itching to play again. As usual he chatted a bit, wandered around a bit, noodled some, had a cup of hot tea, and then suddenly announced he was ready.

Having recorded 52 consecutive masters for Columbia in 52 attempts (not once in this stretch did he have to retake a shot at a tune), Erroll promptly knocked off one number, listened to it and announced himself as satisfied as I was, and then launched the second tune. Here the fabulous Garner string was broken at 53. At the end of a perfectly wonderful take, he said, "You know, we can do it better. Specs, suppose you start like this, on bongos, see? Al, you do this, and I'll do like so." The "arrangement" was set in about 25 seconds, and Erroll said, "I hate to ask, but couldn't I please take one more ?" Of course we took it, and out came a completely different and only slightly more wonderful version of the tune; there wasn't room above the first take for another version to top it completely. And so Erroll's consecutive streak of "first takes" was broken deliberately.

He promptly started on another. Convinced now that his playing was quite unimpaired, Erroll spent anywhere from 15 to 45 seconds in whispered consultation, marked by a few unidentifiable chords at the keyboard, and then said he was ready to cut one. The rest of the time, he just relaxed and was soon wagging his head as he played, just as comfortable as ever. In the control room, as usual, we never knew what he was going to play, and most of the time it was impossible to guess even after the intro was over.

19 tunes in all were cut within three and a half hours, representing a total playing time of 97 minutes and 2 seconds. Halfway through, Erroll had knocked some of the piano strings out of tune. Of the three other pianos in the studio, only one was a full grand, and it had two rattling notes in the bass. Since the pianos also had rather different keyboard actions, it was decided to keep going with the same one despite the slight, often imperceptible sag in pitch of certain notes. Inspiration such as we were getting that night was rare enough to justify this decision. (You might try, as a matter of fact, to detect which numbers in this collection were recorded early in the session and which were recorded late. Then ask your friends to guess. I'm sure you'll find considerable disagreement.)

Of the tunes in this album, Moonglow was suggested by Erroll's manager, Martha Glaser. We had all been struck by the possibility that the interpretation in the soundtrack of the movie, "Picnic", had been inspired by the version Erroll had made with Woody Herman (Columbia CL 651). So Erroll, true to form, came up with a fresh approach for the next time around.

Creme de Menthe is an original which Erroll taught to Al Hall in some mysterious fashion which did not seem to include conversation or demonstrations on the piano. All I know is that with a few monosyllables, a few chords on the piano, and some waggling of Erroll's expressive eyebrows, Al got it and the first and only time he ever played it is the time you hear preserved on the record.

The up-tempo tunes are among Erroll's most exciting bravura performances. The Man I Love, which opens with a deceptive slow section, takes off at the tempo change and never lets up. At 8:06, it is the longest Garner performance on record, and one of the greatest.

Finally Erroll stopped. "I feel like the guy whose doctor told him to take only one drink a day," he said. "At the end of the first month he was up to his drink for June 15, 1991." He paused to wipe his face again with a soggy towel. "I think I've run through the contract and the first two options, haven't I ?"

Also included on the Columbia EP [CL 2606] are brief versions of All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm and Humoresque, the latter no doubt as a tribute to the great Art Tatum who favored the tune and played it often.

The following video tribute to Erroll contains as its soundtrack my all-time favorite Garner recording - The Man I Love.

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