Tuesday, February 15, 2011


George Shearing has died at age 91, and though I can't pretend to have listened to more than a dozen of his, what, hundred albums, I always heard something to admire, whether he was playing solo or in numerous duet and trio settings; backing some vocalist, or leading his early, ever-fluid, boplight quintet (George with his so-called "locked hands" approach, his sidemen on vibes and guitar each doubling a hand); recording with too many strings attached, or simply larking about--as was his wont occasionally--as jovial emcee and NonZensical blind master of all he surveyed (using some sort of uncanny radar). I felt particularly inept when I realized I'd omitted him from the "oldsters riding high" post I wrote a couple of months back.

George was funny and droll, skillful and quietly proud, sometimes reticent and yet always friendly, or so it seemed. Over the many many years, he famously backed Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson, Nat Cole, Dakota Staton, Mel Torme, and no doubt more; introduced Cal Tjader, Toots Thielemans, Gary Burton, Brian Torff maybe, plus several Latin percussionists of note; and shared the stage (and/or album sessions) with Marian McPartland, the Montgomery Brothers, Hank Jones, Red Norvo, Ray Brown, and others I'm forgetting.

Of certain, sure-swinging interest was his too-brief quintet with both young Gary Burton and brilliant New Orleans-born drummer Vernel Fournier. That fine five (completed by guitarist John Gray and bassman Bill Yancey) in 1963 laid down at least one terrific LP, the classic live set simply titled Jazz Concert, offering great solos and interaction on "Walkin'," "Love Walked In," and a Ray Bryant original, "Bel Aire." With the album's total six tunes lasting just 40 minutes, now I'm wondering if there might not be more tracks from that concert worth hearing, still languishing in the Capitol vaults. George's passing might just lead to some intelligent reassessing and reissuing.

Specifically, Capitol, Concord, and MGM control the lion's share (so to speak) of his best recordings, and Capitol the worst of the plentiful, M.O.R. supperclub albums with strings. I suppose Shearing thought of himself as, not strictly a Bop/Jazz pianist, but a more rounded "entertainer" in both the English concert hall and Fats Waller/sui generis manner, and maybe a bit of an interloper as an immigrant-Brit, blind white man working to claim his niche in the world of mostly Black Jazzmen. But if for nothing else, he'll always be remembered for composing "Lullaby of Birdland." (It might be a fair observation that even his choice of the word "lullaby" suggests those Bop-made-beautiful piano stylings. Anyway, I can't name another Shearing original even though he composed a few hundred!)

Death has been thinning the Jazz herd a little too assiduously of late---Hank Jones, James Moody, Abbey Lincoln, Bud Shank, Billy Taylor, Lena Horne, Buddy Collette... We might have been spared this Shearing.


Alan Kurtz said...

Early in his career, after moving from England to America, George Shearing committed the cardinal sin among jazz musicians: popularity. Yet the great 1949-52 recordings by his quintet are among the most luminously pleasurable tracks in jazz history. My favorites are the medium-tempo standards "East of the Sun (And West of the Moon)," "September in the Rain," "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," "I'll Remember April" (all 1949), "For You" and "I'll Be Around" (both 1950). Shamefully, these have never been suitably restored and reissued.

And that of course dovetails with your February 5 post "Partial Mosaics." The rights to Shearing's quintet gems, originally owned by MGM, in time passed to Verve, were later acquired by PolyGram and ultimately gobbled up by Universal Music. Along the way, haphazardly strewn reissues came and went with, at best, lackluster remastering.

Once the millennium turned and the 50-year UK copyrights expired, British firms such as Proper Records issued partial compilations that were royally mediocre. Audio was often abysmal, to wit the lovely "Indian Summer," rendered virtually unlistenable by Proper's wretched reproduction.

Let me reiterate. This body of work ranks among the finest jazz recordings of the postwar era. And no one, including me, has ever heard it reproduced with anything even close to the fidelity that it richly deserves.

As for your confession that you can't name a Shearing original apart from "Lullaby of Birdland," the first one I'd mention is "Conception" (1949), which so intrigued Miles Davis that he and arranger Gerry Mulligan transformed it into "Deception" (1950) for Birth of the Cool. In 1956, Bill Evans--who was very much influenced by Shearing--covered "Conception" for his debut as a leader, incorporating the extended Miles/Mulligan structure to yield an adroit composite that might've been called "Con/Deception."

I Witness said...

Alan has the unfortunate "rap" (see his new book) of being angry, sarcastically Kurtz only, when in fact he often dons the robes of informed educator and incisive commentator; his poise and prose are then well met indeed.

So a tip of the Leimy cap to Mr. Kurtz for filling in the Shearing info I omitted--and for reminding me of that missed "Conception."