Nightconcert contains enough that is new and fresh to make this album one of the exciting discoveries of the year.
Erroll Garner: Nightconcert (Mack Avenue Records)
By Michael Ullman
In the ’50s and ’60s, pianist Erroll Garner was a phenomenon, a jazz player who was one of the most popular musical acts in the world. His 1955 Concert by the Sea was a best selling jazz recording for years. Having outgrown every jazz club, he appeared mostly in concert halls and, like Dave Brubeck, at the occasional college. So it is no surprise that this new trio release from November 1964, Erroll Garner: Nightconcert, was recorded at the Amsterdam’s cavernous Royal Concertgebouw Hall. He appears with his regular rhythm section of bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Kelly Martin. What is surprising is the responsiveness of an audience who is listening to a performance that began at midnight.
Live, Garner was a presence: hair slicked back, staring intensely at the keyboard, grunting in a constantly tuneless accompaniment to whatever he was playing, he was all business. He had to be forced to say a word to the audience, which adored him for his musical energy and, perhaps, for his genial eccentricity. He was short enough that people appreciated the reference when he made a recording called Afternoon of an Elf. Everything about Garner seemed endearing. Most of his wide repertoire was made up of standards, including his own “Misty,” and he usually played these familiar songs in a thumping mid-tempo. He rarely played really fast tunes, and seemed uneasy with really slow ballads. He could play blues….he was the pianist on Charlie Parker’s “Cool Blues.” But he obviously preferred the Great American Songbook, as it has come to be called.
Garner was famous for his introductions, which typically had nothing to do with the tune that he eventually was going to play. Inevitably, when the melody of “My Funny Valentine” or “April in Paris” emerged after a period of agile wandering, the audience would burst into happy applause — it seemed to be congratulating itself for its patience rather than the whimsical dexterity of the pianist. Garner would then proceed, his left hand vigorously chomping at the keyboard, one chord to a beat, or in kind of stride pattern, while his right hand improvised gaily. At times, for this listener, his loosely tied bundle of tricks don’t work: he comes off as self-indulgently mannered. Luckily, at this midnight concert he was unusually energized and inventive.
Born in Pittsburgh, Garner’s recording career began in 1944, when he was 21. To my ears, he began to sound like himself — for better or for worse — the next year. In August of 1945, Garner recorded four tunes as part of the quartet of the big-toned tenor saxophonist Don Byas, who played in those years both in the Count Basie big band and with Dizzy Gillespie’s quintet. After a short, bowed introduction by bassist Slam Stewart, Byas plays the melody of “Three O’Clock in the Morning” in his most luxuriant style. Then Garner takes over, his left hand almost bouncing off the keyboard with his perkiest manner while his right hand plays, often in thirds, a skipping solo decorated with trills. He’s as bright as a spring day. It’s such a delight that we forget that Garner single-handedly dissipates the moodiness of Byas’s opening chorus.
Twenty years later ,at the Concertgebouw, Garner is still serving up heaping helpings of vitality in a concert of mostly familiar tunes: the trio performance begins with “Where or When,” includes a version of “Night and Day,” and ends with “Thanks for the Memory.” It could be that Garner is making, with each title, a kind of wordless joke about the late night set-up. Was the pianist surprised to find himself playing at midnight? He was ready though. “Where or When” gives us Garner at his most exuberant and humorous. He plays the melody with his characteristic stuttering chords, fey pauses, and thumping conclusions to phrases, then moves onto a more typical four/four swing. His invented melodies are singable. Garner ends with a humorous interchange with the drummer, who knows Garner’s moves well enough to play in unison with him. Martin answers the pianist’s one-note thrusts with what amounts to a percussive coda to the piece.
Clearly, everyone was in a good mood that November night. Garner moves on to Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love,” whose melody sounds as if it is struggling to emerge from the left hand’s aggressive chording. Other highlights include Garner’s welcome version of “On Green Dolphin Street,” which seems to come from a different neighborhood than Miles Davis’s versions (or Eric Dolphy’s). “My Funny Valentine” receives a longer, and more mysterious, introduction than usual. Another highlight, and a tune the audience did not recognize, is “All Yours” from the movie A New Kind of Love. Garner recorded the soundtrack with a big band in 1963. Here, after an somewhat disruptive introduction, he treats the melody gently. There’s an undistinguished blues performance here — Garner’s original “Amsterdam Strut.” But Nightconcert contains enough that is new and fresh to make this album one of the exciting discoveries of the year.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.)