So why isn’t Erroll Garner the subject of half a dozen biographies, hundreds of scholarly articles and theses, or even a major biopic?
Lost Recordings TLR-2304048
Erroll Garner (piano); Jose Mangual (bongos); Ike Isaacs (bass); Jimmie Smith (drums)
Recorded November 1967
Lost Recordings is a strange company. An Ellington issue recently was unsatisfactory. This release comes with some question marks. Erroll Garner’s work was completely under the control of his manager, Martha Glaser, who was renowned for the fierce way she guarded her client. Did Martha know about this recording? Did she approve it? They were a rightly litigious pair. Glaser and Garner took Columbia to court and were eventually successful. They sued the record company for issuing albums that Glaser and Garner had not approved. The lawsuit was protracted, and Garner did not issue any music for a lengthy period. There are consequences when taking on a powerful organisation. Garner was one of the first jazz musicians to stand out for the rights of the artist against a major media company.
In some ways, the jazz tastemakers have turned against Garner. Glaser insisted that Garner was treated as a concert artist, and he regularly filled large prestigious venues. Now he is dismissed, by some, as superficial, vulgar and populist. The truth is that Garner does not fit well into the categories of bop, or swing. In some ways he is closer to Fats Waller or James P Johnson. There was no real niche, so he created his own. He has no real disciples and so no one to argue for him. He is almost stranded, a loner, isolated.
For me, Erroll Garner is always a guilty pleasure, but pleasure none the less. He fits most pieces with a pattern: the creative tricky intro, the rocking middle, improvised section and the climax with sometimes a hint of sentimentality. However, there is always a sense of fun and energy. Every piece is an adventure. Above all, Garner was ebullient and eloquent. His approach to melody, harmony, and especially rhythm was fresh and inventive. Band members were always ready to be surprised because they were never really sure what Garner was going to play next. Listen closely and there is real crafted improvisation in all his pieces, especially the intros.
Garner illustrates a real problem. Erroll could fill halls and not just with jazz cognoscenti but people, real people, who enjoyed what he played, and they could recognise his style. He is one of the most imitated pianists. That kind of popularity can be important for the general health of jazz. Do we have anyone with Erroll’s reach today? His ‘Concert By The Sea’ was said to have sold more than a million copies.
The recording on this album is more than good, it has sharp clarity and it brings out the fierceness of Erroll’s attack. When he hits stride, as he does on this album, he is propulsive. One question is: does he really need Jose Mangual and his bongos? One thing that Erroll does not lack is rhythm and Isaacs and Smith can provide all that is needed. Sometimes the bongos are just intrusive.
The programme here is not surprising, Erroll saved his surprises for his inventive prologues and the creativity of his improvising. ‘Autumn Leaves’ is often slow and dreamy. Garner almost bludgeons the listener and completely eradicates the sentimentality from the melody. The wit is ever present, the swing is irresistible and Garner invents, hums and grunts his way along. This is gutsy and impressive playing as he alters the rhythm, enjoying the resonance of the piano.
There is a rhapsodic opening to ‘These Foolish Things’. The embellishment of the melody is minimal for a time. This is slow motion Garner before the change of rhythm as he starts to rock and swing, improvising, melodically, relentlessly with the melody never far away.
The introduction to ‘The Shadow of Your Smile’ is longer than usual, almost a composition in its own right. ‘Like It Is’ and ‘Misty’ are two original compositions by Garner. Interesting, that Garner goes straight into ‘Like It Is’, without a preamble.
All the playing of the pieces across the album is vintage Garner. There is a resolute swing and rhythm that is infectious and, if you are open to it, a lifting of the spirit.
Professor Robin D.G. Kelley the author of the acclaimed biography Of Thelonious Monk wrote some time ago: ‘So why isn’t Erroll Garner the subject of half a dozen biographies, hundreds of scholarly articles and theses, or even a major biopic?’ Maybe it is a time for a reassessment.