Saturday, September 11, 2021

Sir George Shearing and The Guv'nor, Robert Farnon [From the Archives]

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

“To call George Shearing a jazz pianist is certainly accurate, yet also limiting and nowhere near complete. It fails to encompass the immense diversity of riches in his playing and a sheer pianistic brilliance which can move easily from what Whitney Balliett calls the "swinging abandon" of improvisation to a grasp of the language of Beethoven or Bartok or Mozart or Bach. 

Pianist Marian McPartland says, "Without question, he's a genius. Every time I hear him or play with him, I rediscover how much music of all kinds he's absorbed." 

All of the Shearing influences — from classical composers to the jazz masters — Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Nat Cole, Hank Jones, Erroll Garner, Bud Powell — become a natural part of what is a very individual sound. Each performance he creates is a little gem, a sort of tone poem of invention that relates a story, building dramatically and logically with incredible wit.
- Donald Elfman, Jazz producer, director and writer

"Most of what I know is based on having stolen everything I could from Farnon. I'll say that right off. I've listened to him and tried to approximate what I thought he was doing. He made strings sound like they always should have and never did. Everybody wrote them skinny. He knew how to write them so that it could wrench at you. I'd never heard anybody like him before and I've never heard anybody like him since. We're all pale imitations of him, those of us who are influenced by him."
- Johnny Mandel, Academy Award and Grammy winning composer-arranger

Pianist George Shearing [1919-2011] was one of the most accomplished Jazz musicians who ever lived. 

During his lifetime Robert Farnon [1917-2005] was considered by many to be the finest arranger in the world an acclamation connoted in the reference to him by many in his trade as “The Guv’nor.”

It took a very long time in their respective careers for them to record together and when they finally did with George’s trio and the Farnon Orchestra in 1979 on the MPS album entitled On Target, the LP had very limited distribution when it was released in 1982, and subsequently has not, to my knowledge, made it to CD/digital. 

Those of us who love beautiful sounding Jazz had to wait again until 1992 when George Shearing [who was knighted for services to music in 2007 hence the honorific in the title of this piece] had switched to the Telarc label which issued the magical results of the union between the George Shearing [this time with his quintet] and The Robert Farnon Orchestra on the CD named after an original composition by Farnon entitled How Beautiful is Night [Telarc CD-83325].

Inexpensive copies of the CD are still available through online sellers along with MP3 and audio cassette versions of the recording.

George recounts the background to both of these unions in these excerpts from his autobiography written with Alyn Shipton, Lullaby of Birdland.

“Through the years I've been with several record labels. First there was Decca in England, then my first American recording was on Savoy and the launch of the Quintet on Discovery. I joined MGM in February 1949 and stayed with them until I began my long association with Capitol in the fall of 1955. That ran until the end of the 1960s and after recording in the early 70s for my own label, Sheba, I went first to MPS, and then to Concord, where I had another long-running business relationship, including all my work with Mel Torme.

At the beginning of the 1990s, I made another move to Telarc. Things began for them with a couple of live albums from the Blue Note in New York, where I appeared during February 1992 with Neil Swainson on bass and Grady Tate on drums. I never had to say one word to Grady or Neil about the musical conception of the album; we just played. We covered all kinds of material from bebop pieces by Charlie Parker and Bud Powell to Brazilian tunes by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Plus there were some originals, too, by me and Neil, including his waltz Horizon.

Later that same year, I made an album in London with Robert Farnon for Telarc, called How Beautiful is Night. Bob wrote the arrangements and conducted a full orchestra. I've been a fan of Bob's since the days of World War Two. In the world of composing and arranging, he's known as the guv'nor and deserves all the many accolades he's received over the years. Our first recording together, On Target, dates from my MPS period, in 1979. That was an interesting recording, because I originally made the trio cuts in Villingen-Schwenningen in the Black Forest. Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, the producer, decided it was going to be a Bob Farnon album and that we would lay in the orchestral tracks at a later date in England. So Bob received the cuts from MPS and worked on the orchestrations. I had the MPS engineer record an "A" on the piano for the orchestra to tune to, and they only did so in Wembley, two years later!

Hans Georg, the owner and chief engineer of MPS, is one of the nicest people in the world, with a marvelous family and a great studio in his house, although you did occasionally get the impression that he loved everything he did so much that he was reluctant to see it leave his shelves. Nevertheless, the studio he had set up was fantastic, and overall it was one of my best experiences in terms of recording of my whole career. When you went to the Black Forest to work there, you flew first class, stayed in the finest hotel in the area, and were well paid. This was followed up by regular accounting, so the company was good to work for, except as I say it sometimes took a long time to get things out. It certainly can't have been cheap to bring in Bob and a big orchestra to complete the disc we made together. Overall, recording with Hans Georg was a joy and a privilege, never just another job.

When I was reunited with Bob for the Telarc recording, How Beautiful Is Night, we did the whole thing live with all the musicians — my Quintet and his orchestra — together in the studio. Prior to the sessions, Bob came over to our cottage in the Cotswolds during the summer before we recorded, and spent the whole day with us. He had no manuscript paper with him, just a notepad and a pencil. He'd jot down a note or two here and there, and more often than not he'd write down a word, rather than a musical idea.

Later, his son told Ellie that what Bob did next was to go home to the Channel Islands, where he would sit down in his favorite chair. Once he's there, he thinks and thinks, and then he thinks a while longer. Then he pulls out some manuscript paper and starts writing. There's no piano involved. 

And the sounds that come out from the orchestra are not to be believed.
I can't think of anybody better at writing a beautifully orchestrated ballad than Robert Farnon. But he has his jazz moments too. He has been a good friend of many jazz musicians over the years, including a lot of the guys who played at Minton's, as well as leading the Canadian Band of the Allied Expeditionary Force during the war. He stayed on in London to write for Ted Heath, Ambrose, and Geraldo, and to make his own discs for English Decca. In the days when I had my own radio show on WNEW in New York I played several of Bob's jazzier London recordings from the 1940s, including You're The Cream In My Coffee, which I announced as You're The Crime in My Cafe.

On four of the tracks we recorded together in 1992,1 featured a group playing in the style of the old Quintet, with the English musicians Frank Ricotti on vibes and Allan Ganley on drums alongside guitarist Louis Stewart, an Irishman who had played in my trio in the 70s, and Neil Swainson on bass.”

More details about the Shearing-Farnon association are recounted in Neil Tesser insightful sleeve notes to  How Beautiful is Night [Telarc CD-83325].

“In 1957, Jack Kerouac wrote:

‘Suddenly Dean stared into the darkness of a corner beyond the bandstand and said, Sal, God has arrived.

I looked. GEORGE SHEARING. And as always he leaned his blind head on his pale hand, all ears opened like the ears of an elephant, listening to the American sounds and mastering them for his own English summer's-night use. Then they urged him to get up and play. He did. He played innumerable choruses with amazing chords that mounted higher and higher till the sweat splashed all over the piano, and everybody listened in awe and fright. They led him off the stand after an hour. He went back to his dark corner, old god Shearing, and the boys said. There ain't nothin' left after that.’

It's a long drive from Kerouac's off-road encounter with Shearing, in a Chicago bop dive, to the reserved-seat, black-tie collaboration heard on this disc. Too long? Kerouac might think so; he might tell us the old god Shearing had wandered off into the long dark night of "culture," far from the seeds of the music heard on that magical summer's night north of the Loop.

But George Shearing, the many-faceted product of two English-speaking cultures, would beg to differ. The world of the concert hall belongs to him by rights, just as he made the bebop nights of the '50s his own; and he has almost always navigated these two poles with ease.

In fact, when Shearing first unveiled his innovative quintet sound in 1949, he had already begun to bridge his musical interests. The band's foreground instrumentation — featuring vibraphone, guitar, and piano, but no horns — seemed to straddle the worlds of chamber music and bebop combos. (The quintet proved politically correct before the phrase, let alone the concept, even existed. It comprised four men — two white, two black — and a woman, the vibraphonist Margie Hyams.) And Shearing's own compositions contributed to this sense of fusion: songs like "Conception" and "Lullaby of Birdland." while undeniably jazz, nonetheless showed a restraint and attention to development not always present in the exuberance of bop.

Shearing's previous Telarc release, I Hear A Rhapsody, briefly recounts his biography; for our purposes, it is important to note that by the late '50s Shearing had returned to the classical music he studied as a teenager, performing concertos with symphony orchestras and occasionally using his quintet within the same context. So by 1979, when he first collaborated on record with the Canadian-born composer and arranger Robert Farnon, the biggest shock lay in how long it had taken them to get together.

Farnon's career contains as many accolades as Shearing's; while his name may turn fewer heads, his music has been at least as influential, a result of his arrangements for such singers as Bennett, Sinatra, and Vaughan. and of a flurry of film scores (including Captain Horatio Hornblower, Where's Charley? and the last Hope-Crosby travelogue. The Road To Hong Kong). What's more, his colleagues lend to regard him with the respect, if not awe, that Kerouac accorded Shearing. Andre Previn has called him "the greatest living string writer in the world." and Tony Bennett says that every orchestrator with whom he's worked "steals from Robert Farnon. They really look at him like he's a god."

As a result, this album stacks up as much more than "George Shearing with Strings." That phrase — which connotes jazz performances sweetened by violins and the occasional high reed — has virtually nothing to do with these elaborately conceived settings for the style of George Shearing (and, on four tracks, his quintet). In wedding his control of the orchestra with Shearing's taste and swing, Farnon has done all but the impossible: he has created an album full of mini-concertos, in which the piano plays the prominent role while fully blending into the larger ensemble, and in the process he has drawn on a vast array of musical devices.

Only a handful of orchestral jazz projects have so fully accomplished this integration of seemingly incompatible components, and for obvious reasons. First, only a handful of orchestrators display the conceptual prowess of Robert Farnon. And second, only a handful of modern instrumentalists combine the traditional virtues of classical and jazz musics with the elegance of George Shearing.

Dancing In The Dark, the darkly romantic, even fatalistic Arthur Schwartz ballad, concerns more than ballroom swirls in a power failure. Titled after a book by the philosopher Martin Buber. who used the phrase as an analogy for the human condition, it reflects lyricist Howard Dietz's ambition to delve beneath the usual love-song surface. The arrangement showcases Shearing's lovely quintet sound — a sound for which he is noted — and Louis Stewart's carefully stated improvisation on guitar.

Farnon's treatment of Heather On The Hill (from the musical Brigadoon) is less an arrangement than a fantasia, which uses the original song as its source material. It contains some unusual associations. For instance, in the flute solo of the introduction, Farnon borrows a phrase from the verse of
Gershwin's But Not For Me: at the end, the music is reminiscent of Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The piece has the structure of ballet music, with Shearing's piano the lead dancer.

Farnon further extends his invitation to the dance on the next two songs. He has unexpectedly turned Oh, Lady Be Good! — the classic Broadway tune from the show Lady Be Good, and a longtime jazz vehicle — into a waltz, delightfully reharmonized by Shearing (who tosses in a snippet of Farnon's own Portrait of a Flirt in closing). After a somewhat melodramatic verse, he treats More Than You Know with a light, swinging lope. If you listen carefully, you will hear a quote from Farnon's To a Young Lady.

Our Waltz will surprise those fans of television's Red Skelton Show, who figured never to hear it again after Skelton left the air in 1971. Written by David Rose, who led the orchestra on Skelton's show, it served as an intermittent theme for much of the program's twenty-year history. A double-time waltz feeling sets the mood for the quintet entrance.

Shearing insisted that this recording contain one of Farnon's compositions; thus the new arrangement of How Beautiful Is Night, one of Farnon's most recorded compositions. With its chromatic harmonic movement and pastel tone portraiture, it's Farnon's Clare de Lune. and Shearing brings to his part all the impressionistic passion and control one could want. Once Upon A Time calls for similar qualities in the entirely different context of northern European folk music. The piece is actually an adaptation of an adaptation: Farnon has grounded his flights of fancy in Edvard Grieg's Lyric Pieces For Piano, which is itself based on both a Swedish folk song and Norwegian folk dance.

Days Gone By,a sweepingly gorgeous ballad by the Canadian jazz bassist and pianist Don Thompson, glories in a perfectly realized setting. It also adds a new sound to the wide palette explored by Farnon and Shearing: the unmistakable jazz color of Tommy Whittle's tenor saxophone and Shearing's piano obligato, against a layered backdrop of strings and harp. The full quintet returns, front and center, for Farnon's inventive version of Put On A Happy Face (from the first "rock musical," Bye Bye Birdie). For the theme, Shearing unveils his famed quintet sound — vibes on top, guitar on the bottom, and piano chords sandwiched in the middle — before a classic locked-hands solo.

If Haunted Ballroom sounds like more dance music, it comes by il naturally: the theme derives from a ballet of the same name, composed by Geoffrey Toye. Farnon opens with harp, vibes, strings, and bass flute combining to create pools ot raindrops before the waltz tempo grows active. Towards the end of Just Imagine, from the musical Good News, there is an interesting question and answer segment between the piano and solo violin. The quintet returns lor this program's finale, The Surrey With The Fringe On Top, for which Farnon has saved some of his best ideas. His rhythmic displacement of the theme both confounds our expectations and re-examines the melody, while the arrangement's airy reliance on flutes provides an orchestral correlative to the lightly swinging sound of the Shearing ensemble.
— Neil Tesser

What a joy it was to record this album with Robert Farnon. He has earned every accolade he has received. To me. he will always be "The Guv'nor."
— George Shearing

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