Jazz Album Review: Pianist Erroll Garner — The Best Tunes Played with Mucho Gusto
By Michael Ullman
Thanks to Octave and Mack Avenue Records, a significant section of pianist Erroll Garner’s storied career is back, sounding better than ever before.
Erroll Garner Octave Remastered Series on Mack Avenue Records. Dreamstreet (1959); Closeup in Swing (1961); One World Concert (1962); Campus Concert (1962); A New Kind of Love (1963); A Night at the Movies (1964); That’s My Kick (1966); Up in Erroll’s Room (1967); Feeling is Believing ((1969); Gemini (1971); Magician (1973); Gershwin and Kern (1964, 1965, and 1967).
Arts Fuse reviews of Erroll Garner’s albums Dreamstreet, Closeup in Swing, One World Concert, and A New Kind of Love.
Arts Fuse review of Errol Garner’s live performance recording, NightConcert
There’s a backstory to these 12 reissues of pianist Erroll Garner’s recordings, listed here in the approximate order of their release. The first in the series, Dreamstreet, was recorded over two consecutive nights in December 1959, four years after Garner’s historic (and almost hysterically) popular Columbia recording, Concert by the Sea. It took two years for Dreamstreet to be issued and, when it was, the disc appeared on Garner’s own Octave Records. What happened? Garner had decided to take up struggle “for control of his own catalog.” He was contending with Columbia Records, the giant in the field — the corporation whose recordings had made him a star. It was an admirably daring move on Garner’s part, but self-determination was an integral part of his makeup.
The notes to Dreamstreet were written by his longtime manager Martha Glaser. They suggest (indirectly) what Garner had gone through and the reasons why the battle had been worth it. We are told that Garner won by NOT walking into a studio: “After a history-making hiatus from recording, Garner is here, playing, with the greatest freedom of his noteworthy recording career. These sides embody some of the most spirited, inventive, and moving Garner performances ever recorded. Garner had unprecedented freedom in recording these works, a circumstance for which he, as a prolific improviser, has long striven. Time was no factor: there was room to experiment stretch out, and just ‘blow’ — with complete surety that no material would be released without his personal approval.” On the first of two nights of recording, he and his mates, Eddie Calhoun on bass and Kelly Martin on drums, played from 10 p.m. to 6:30 the next morning. Garner missed the studio. And, for once, time was no factor.
Legends grew up around the obviously feisty Garner: he was 5 foot 2 and was said to perform on a stack of telephone books. (A paper tower that isn’t visible in any of the photos I have seen of him.) The pianist couldn’t read music, or at least he said he couldn’t, which was not necessarily a desirable failing in the bebop era. But the fact that he “played from his head” helped endear him to the crowds that attended his concerts. Fans also loved how he accompanied his improvisations with grunting vocals. He interacted with listeners in other distinctively winning ways. When I bought his album Closeup in Swing in 1961, what initially stood out were his elaborate musical introductions. He would start out confidently and proceed at length, but it often was not at all clear what tune he was going to play. When, after a long excursion, he finally hit the familiar melody, whether it was “Just One of Those Things” or “Sweet Lorraine,” the audience would laugh and clap delightedly. It was as if he were playing peek-a-boo with a child — an amusingly mischievous relationship was established.
He was undeniably exuberant as a pianist, given to stomping chords, roiling tremolos, and sudden drops in volume. He liked to play melodies in a hush. His left hand would chomp out a steady 4/4 rhythm that always sounded a little rushed — as if it were late for a train. Meanwhile, he would be inventing melodies, interrupting them with thumps and grandiose gestures, double-time passages in octaves, or icy single-note lines. He marked the end of choruses with huge crescendos, which were inevitably followed by a drop to a pianissimo. His style was all about big contrasts. He begins “St. Louis Blues” (on Closeup in Swing) with a stabbing series of chords that could have been made by a pile driver. Then he states the first section of W.C. Handy’s celebrated piece in Latin style. Then he reverts to a still more aggressive 4/4, at the point in the song when a singer is telling us she hates to see the evening sun go down.
Of course, his repertoire included his own compositions — he was the composer of “Misty” — but mostly he played a succession of well-known standards and show tunes, such as the medley from Oklahoma on Dreamstreet. He famously recorded a West Coast session with Charlie Parker, but he tended to bypass the bop or hard bop repertoire: it would be hard to sound less like Bud Powell than Garner does. Still, later on, in his own way, he latched onto a few jazz hits, including Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” and Jobim’s “The Girl From Ipanema” (both on Up in Erroll’s Room). Overall, though, his repertoire could also have been played by Louis Armstrong, or by a swing musician such as Lester Young: many songs found here were played by both. (An exception is Blood, Sweat and Tears’ “Spinning Wheel,” found on Feeling Is Believing.)
Garner was born in Pittsburgh in 1921. He passed away from heart trouble in 1977. He was a twin, but the serious musical competition in his family of six kids was big brother Linton, a pianist who in 1946 started recording with the famous Billy Eckstine Orchestra. By then, the mostly self-taught Erroll, after a mini-career as what Charles Dickens would have called an infant prodigy, had moved to New York City. The first recordings that have survived were made in the home of Timmie Rosencrantz. They were once available on Classics as Erroll Garner 1944 and 1944, Volume Two. (Other early recordings are on the Complete Savoy Masters.) His trio was a hit soon after he arrived in Manhattan. He got around. In 1945 he recorded with bands led by Slam Stewart, Georgie Auld (featuring Dizzy Gillespie), and, most impressively, saxophonist Don Byas. He moved to California and recorded with the progressive band of Boyd Raeburn, with a newly reconstituted trio and, on February 17, 1947, performed with the Charlie Parker band that made “Cool Blues” and that supported the booming singer Earl Coleman on “This is Always.” By 1950, he was signed by Columbia Records: they rerecorded his “Misty” with an orchestra conducted by Mitch Miller. With Columbia he made a number of successful recordings, including Paris Impressions.
Nonetheless, by the ’60s he was on his own, as he desired to be. I doubt that he ever looked back. (I am not sure I’d be able to distinguish his Columbia style from the way he was playing for his own label, but it must have felt different for him.) What Octave has done is take 12 Garner LPs, remaster them expertly, and add some previously unreleased cuts. Now Playing, One World Concert, Dreamstreet, and Campus Concert are trio recordings: on Gemini the trio is augmented by José Mangual on congas. To me, the trio setting seems most natural to Garner — though his rhythm section has to spend a lot of time discreetly waiting for him to get to the tunes. A New Kind of Love gives us Garner playing (mostly) the score for the film of the same name. The movie stars Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and the session features Garner with an orchestra conducted by Leith Stevens. Veteran arranger Pete Rugolo did some of the arrangements, as in Garner’s version of “Mimi.” Interestingly, and perhaps because he is driven by a large group, Garner sounds less eccentric here, less distinctive than he does on his trio sets. Yet this is a fine collection of tunes, five composed by Garner. The idea was to showcase the pianist’s compositions, but my favorite cut is the delightfully gentle swing of the title track, “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me,” introduced to the jazz world in 1930 by Ethel Waters. The tune never disappeared, with later recordings coming from Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Peggy Lee. Garner’s instrumental version is in that league.
Garner is back to his grunting self on That’s My Kick, in front of a band that includes a rhythm guitar, multiple percussionists, and the veteran bassist Milt Hinton. I rather like Garner’s witty composition “Nervous Waltz.” The first notes we hear on Up in Erroll’s Room are by the bassist, who sets up the groundwork for “Watermelon Man.” Here, Garner is joined by a brass choir. In one introduction the pianist seems to be making a mambo out of “I Got Rhythm.” That is followed by “True Blues,” which is striking because it points out how few blues Garner recorded. Feeling Is Believing puts a great bassist, George Duvivier, in a supporting role, and offers an expanded rhythm section. They play an uptempo “Strangers in the Night” and, with unusual daintiness, Garner’s “Mood Island.” The album Magician contains another notable blues, “It Gets Better Every Time,” along with an occasional use of Norman Gold’s organ. Finally, there’s a collection of American classics, Gershwin and Kern, tunes recorded at various times in the ’60s and first collected and issued in 1976.
Thanks to Octave and Mack Avenue, a significant section of Garner’s storied career is back, sounding better than ever before. It’s hard to sum up his appeal. Garner is mannered; his style barely budged once it was set in the ’50s. Yet the pianist is always having a ball and that exhilaration is infectious. Listeners know that he plays the best tunes, and he does so, as one of his titles suggests, with mucho gusto.
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, New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, Boston Phoenix, 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.