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.