Sunday, March 22, 2020

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 musical 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 Cal 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.”