Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A New Look at Erroll Garner's Concert By The Sea

Erroll Garner at the piano, 1946. (Photo by William P. Gottlieb, courtesy of Library of Congress.)

On September 19, 1955 Erroll Garner and his trio were booked to play the auditorium at the Sunset Center in Carmel, California. The gig included bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Denzil DeCosta Best. It paid a guaranteed $650 plus sixty cents “privilege of net receipts.” The band was scheduled to play two sets between 8:30 and 11pm. At first glance the contract was just another gig in the life of Erroll Garner, one of the best and most-beloved jazz pianists of his era who travelled and performed regularly during the fifties in between recording dates for his label at the time, Columbia Records. A year earlier, Garner recorded his biggest hit “Misty” which put his name and music into the mainstream.

Born in Pittsburgh, Garner started learning piano at the age of three simply by replicating everything his teacher taught him. His natural ear combined with a remarkable memory and his propensity to experiment at the keyboard served him well by creating a style that was unique and remarkably accessible. Garner was the consummate self-taught piano player. He couldn’t read or write music, often using a tape recorder to document his tunes later to have them transcribed by a qualified musician. His notion of embellishment was fully developed by the time he landed his first recording session in 1945 at age twenty-two. Garner was later dubbed the master of the “Most Happy Piano,” best known for his buoyant playing and melodic improvisations on standard songs. By 1955, he had released 13 albums and only recently signed a five-year deal with Columbia records with producer George Avakian. Avakian was responsible for some of the most important jazz during the fifties and sixties along with Teo Macero who produced Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck at the time. This particular concert was going to be recorded by Avakian.

Jimmy Lyons, a DJ with local radio station KDON was the producer and host for the concert in Carmel, later to be dubbed Concert By The Sea when the LP was released in 1956. But that record almost never happened because the original recording by George Avakian suffered from a technical glitch preventing any future release. Little did they know that Will Thornbury, a broadcaster who was also at the Sunset Auditorium on behalf of the Armed Forces Radio network, made a second recording. Thornbury, a well-informed jazz fan, made a simultaneous recording of the concert for his own use. It was a timely coincidence because Garner’s manager, Martha Glaser asked Thornbury for the tapes when she learned that Avakian’s recording was a dud. One year later, Concert by the Sea, featuring a selection of 11 tracks from the two-hour concert, was released selling over 225,000 copies in 1956 alone. By 1958, it had sold over a million copies – making it the all-time biggest selling album in jazz up to that point. Since then the record has never been out of print and has become one of the most treasured recordings in music.

Sixty years later, Columbia pulled the original mono, 7-inch reels and re-issued the entire concert on a special remastered 3-CD set called The Complete Concert By The Sea. The set includes the original album, but the gems are the first and second CD as originally presented by the trio at the Sunset Auditorium. Finally, long-time listeners get to experience both sets as they were originally heard with 11 more songs, and I’m very pleased to report that there’s not a false note among them. I can see why producer George Avakian had a difficult time sequencing the edited version back in 1955. Everything is great on here: from the opening notes of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” to the closing tune, “Erroll’s Theme.” On top of that is the complete introduction by host Jimmy Lyons, and an extended radio interview with Will Thornbury recorded backstage after the show.

As a long-time fan of the original record, ever since my father played the vinyl to death back in the day, I was gobsmacked by this reissue in spite of its familiarity. Garner’s original technique is beautifully displayed on every tune with an endless supply of ideas flowing from the keyboard. His gift for melody, while often pounding the chords with his left hand, expresses a musical freedom audiences enjoyed as much as he did. At this concert that rapport was completely musical since Garner rarely talked in between songs, he simply went from one song to the next: a ballad to a swing tune mixing the familiar standards with the occasional be-bop original such as “Red Top." Garner was on a breathless and restless journey and he took his audience with him. He understood that entertaining an audience was just as important as moving the music forward.

It’s interesting to note that Garner’s style was directly related to the way he sat at the piano. He was 5 feet, 4-inches tall and he often sat high on the piano bench, supported by a couple of phone books or cushions that placed his hands on top of the piano keys. Consequently his fingers would be fully extended and not arched like a classically trained musician. This unusual technique would give him the option of attacking the keys with the full force of his fingers or gently dancing on the keyboard with just the tips. So Garner could therefore generate power chords with his left hand while lightly touching the keys with his right, or vice versa. As musician and pianist Geri Allen writes in the liner notes, “whatever tempo, key, dynamic, repertoire, ragtime to stride to boogie to pre-bop, unison octaves, velocity block chords, counter melodies, complex harmonies and rhythmic strata, it was all fluid and free flowing.”

I often listen to the original Concert By The Sea when I need a jolt of optimism. I've never tired of it. This long-awaited extended version is even more rewarding and will likely be on a lot of lists as the reissue of 2015. The fans seem to agree: the album debuted at Number 1 on the Billboard Jazz Charts on October 10th.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. He's just finished Frank Zappa FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books) to be released in 2016.

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