Thursday, October 1, 2015

Erroll Garner, The Complete Concert by the Sea

[Concert by the Sea had eleven tunes. The Complete Concert by the Sea has twenty-two.]

1 I first listened to Concert by the Sea as a very young child, standing alongside the hi-fi to hear Erroll Garner, when asked about his voice at the very end of Side Two, say, “It’s worser than Louie Armstrong.”

2 Like Armstrong, Garner can mistaken for a (mere) entertainer. But the purpose of art is to teach and delight — or, to teach us to delight, to take delight in imaginative abundance.

3 Concert by the Sea was recorded on September 19, 1955, in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, and released as a Columbia LP in 1956. In 1969 the album was rereleased in fake stereo. Both album covers have a young white woman standing on a rock by the sea, her arms stretched out in celebration.

4 The new release has, for the first time, a young woman of color in that pose.

5 That the recording is available is a wonder. Like Duke Ellington’s November 7, 1940, Fargo performance, Garner’s performance just happened to be recorded. Jim Meagher and Will Thornbury were planning to play the tape on Armed Forces Radio. Garner’s manager Martha Glaser saw the machine running and got the goods.

6 What Meagher and Thornbury preserved is a great Garner performance but also a typical Garner performance: piano, bass, drums, a couple of original tunes, a blues, some jazz standards, and many selections from the Great American Songbook. Garner’s typical was great.

7 Thus there are no highlights, really. Every tune is a highlight.

8 Sound quality is much better than before but not all that good. Eddie Calhoun (bass) and Denzil Best (drums) are more audible but still submerged in the murk. The piano in its upper- and lowermost registers sounds thin and metallic. Applause sounds horribly shrill. The engineers have worked from with the original tapes, which are not great. But see no. 5: “That the recording is available is a wonder.”

9 Unlike, say, Earl Hines, Garner never gets lost in exploring a tune. (And to say that is not to fault him.) His performances are more like arrangements, with prepared key changes, moments of tension and release, and dramatic contrasts in volume.

10 Yet Garner’s unaccompanied introductions appear to be spontaneous abstract inventions. These introductions are said to have baffled sidemen as well as audiences.

11 My favorite: the introduction to “I’ll Remember April.”

12 My dad once told me the source for the introduction to “Where or When.” Was it the theme music for an old-movies-on-TV broadcast? I never wrote down the name.

13 The Internets have nothing to say about the introduction to “Where or When.”

14 Like Hines and Glenn Gould, Garner is one of the great self-accompanying pianists, grunting and exclaiming as he plays. One index of Garner’s popularity: the Beatles’ spoof of his mannerisms in “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number).”

15 The elements of Garner’s pianism are brilliantly explained by Dick Hyman in two video clips: 1, 2.

16 I think of Garner as having three operating speeds: swoon, stroll, and sprint.

17 The twenty-two tunes from this performance include six swoons, eight strolls, and eight sprints. A well-balanced program.

18 Swoon: think “Misty,” which does not appear here. Or “Laura” or “The Nearness of You,” which do. They are baroque interiors teeming with cherubim and seraphim and all manner of clouds.

19 Stroll: think “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”: a jaunty, cool boulevardier.

20 Sprint: think “It’s All Right with Me,” with Garner’s left hand keeping double-time. Garner is a long-distance sprinter.

21 Garner’s absence from the PBS series Jazz (2001) is just one of Ken Burns’s crimes against music.

22 “Erroll, Erroll, Erroll, Erroll, Erroll, Erroll, Erroll, Erroll. Erroll Garner. Eddie Calhoun. Denzil DeCosta Best. Erroll, Erroll. Erroll Garner”: Jimmy Lyons, emcee, at the concert’s end.

[The Complete Concert by the Sea (Columbia/Legacy) has the concert as recorded, the rearranged, edited sequence of the original LP, and post-concert interviews with Garner, Calhoun, and Best. With extensive liner notes. List price for the three-CD set: $13.99. The bargain of the year and the reissue of the year.]

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