Erroll Garner Played for Fun

If this counts as easy listening, it's the sort that carries an emotional wallop and reveals increasing intricacies and intimacies over time. I speak from modest experience, having seen Garner on two occasions, a decade apart. The first time he opened for Lionel Hampton at the New York World's Fair in September 1964. I had come to see Hampton and groaned upon learning that I'd have to sit through an hour of someone I expected to be as deep as Tyrone Power playing Eddie Duchin. He walked out with the Manhattan phone book under his arm, placed it on the piano bench (this was standard practice for the man who wrote "Afternoon of an Elf"), and for the next hour, without a break or a word (also standard practice—he never introduced tunes or musicians), shook the Singer Bowl. I left before Hampton arrived, not wanting anything to trample the reverberations of that music.

Given his high-priced celebrity (he was the only jazz musician presented by Sol Hurok), Garner stopped working New York jazz clubs by the late '60s, and so a generation of jazz lovers never got to see him. But as a fledgling writer, I was comped for a set of what turned out to be his last New York engagement, at the St. Regis's Maisonette Room, in May and June of 1974. He had added congas to his usual bass and drums backing, but everything else was the same—the phonebook, the lack of speech, the driving intensity. He did nothing to entertain the well-heeled crowd except play with everything he had; nor did anything in his tune selection or treatments imply pandering. Yet he had the room in his thrall, not a whisper anywhere.

Garner died two years later, of cancer, at the age of 55, still a major attraction throughout the world. But people and record companies forget. While many Garner CDs are available, some of the best are not; Columbia has yet to release a decently mastered edition of Concert by the Sea, reputedly jazz's first million-selling album and an abiding example of Garner at his peak. The DVD—two sets succinctly introduced by critic Steve Race, filmed in 1964 and broadcast in early 1965—is a time machine. It offers close-ups of Garner's expressive hands and insights into the ways of the rhythm section (bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Kelly Martin, like their predecessors and successors, never solo; the drummer usually uses brushes; neither man knows what tune an intro may spark; Garner cues arranged episodes with slight nods), as well as a reminder of how engaging a performer he was—his perspiring face rolling to the beat and reacting to various conceits, though his eyes are usually set on the middle- distance, whether twinkling, buggy, or transported. Garner is superb on "Just One of Those Things" (fast and witty), a "Spring" medley (extended intro and theme statement of nearly vocal timbre), "Laura" (an early hit that suited him uncannily well), "Sonny Boy" (he'd just recorded At the Movies), "Honeysuckle Rose" (a rare instance of his expeditious stride, plus a boogie-woogie episode), "Jeannine (I Dream of Lilac Time)" (convoluted and surprising), and a robust "I Could Have Danced All Night" that salvages a trite "On the Street Where You Live." The audio is thin, but an audio-only performance of "Misty" captures Garner's resonant sound; a video component for "Misty" is shown on the menu screen, but is inexplicably cut off after a minute or so.

Garner recorded between 1944 and 1973, almost always with just a rhythm section, though there was a famous date with Charlie Parker, a jam with Wardell Gray, several solo sessions, and the occasional anomaly, notably the unjustly forgotten Music for Tired Lovers, with vocals by Woody Herman. The Complete Savoy Master Takes collects the '40s records that made him famous, as well as a Slam Stewart session. The 1954 Contrasts is an excellent set of mature Garner, including the original "Misty," the ingeniously relentless "7-11 Jump," and a rare blues. Telarc issued several '60s and '70s albums as twofers—the enchanting At the Movies is coupled with the much less endearing brass section of Up in Erroll's Room. Previously unreleased material collected on five discs in Emarcy's "The Erroll Garner Collection" amounts to an unmitigated gift, especially Easy to Love and Solo Time, which includes a striding "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise" that turns into "Our Waltz" and "I Can't Escape From You"—no one had a larger repertoire of obscure songs. But much of the best Garner was recorded for Columbia between 1950 and 1958, when he successfully sued the label for releasing what he considered substandard material. A couple of anthologies were released more than a decade ago with dreadful sound, so much work needs to be done in restoring such masterly tracks as "Girl of My Dreams," "Caravan," "Avalon," "The Man I Love" (great drumming by Specs Powell), "Will You Still Be Mine," "Love for Sale," and many others, not to mention albums like Paris Impressions and Concert by the Sea, all of which could be prescribed as over-the-counter antidepressants. Guaranteed: no side effects.

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