Taking a break from grails and expensive records, I want to get back to the main reason why I started writing about records in the first place- my love for the albums that I don’t see talked about much, the underappreciated or plain ignored jazz records and artists that deserve another listen. Like George Shearing.
Now, before you make a face and click out of here, hear me (and the record!) out. Shearing wasn’t all schmaltz and elevator music. The man could play some moving music when he and his group wanted to, and that’s what happens on this album, recorded live in concert. To the music!
The Tune: “Love Is Just Around The Corner”
The Tune: “There With You”
The Tune: “Bel Aire”
Recorded: 16 February, 1963 in Santa Monica, CA
- Gary Burton – Vibraphone
- John Gray – Guitar
- George Shearing – Piano
- Bill Yancey – Bass
- Vernel Fournier – Drums
There aren’t too many albums that are perfect, and there aren’t many albums that sate every mood and leave you wanting no more. This record by the George Shearing Quintet is a rare album that does both. Maybe it’s because the group was performing live, or perhaps it was due to the stellar interplay that the guys in the combo had, but every track on this record is perfect. So much so that I ended up recording five of the six tracks on the album to my computer because I couldn’t decide which track to spotlight. I still don’t. I’ll briefly describe why I love those five so much and we’ll see what I choose by the end of this post.
- “Love Is Just Around The Corner”
Arguably the best cut on the entire album, this mellow, hard-strutting outing gives everyone a chance to stretch out and blow. After a rather humorous spoken intro from Shearing (he replaced the word “love” in songs with “lunch”. Hardy har har), he counts the tempo and off they go. Clocking in just shy of 12 minutes, the groove is immediately established from the bridge on. Guitarist John Gray’s switch-up from single lines to tasty chords is nasty enough to elicit vocal approval from Shearing on more than one occasion. Gary Burton (!!!), barely 20 years old at the time of this recording, displays his innovative vibraphone technique of using four mallets as opposed to just two. His solo starts off simple enough but by the end of his second chorus he’s spinning a flurry of notes with simultaneous self-accompaniment. The enthusiastic applause at the end of his solo is well-earned and well-deserved.
Up to this point, Shearing had stayed in the background, providing chordal backgrounds and headbobbing riffs. For his own solo, Shearing stays largely in the pocket, sticking to tasty phrases. The whole piece comes to an end after some shout choruses from all the guys in the group. The great thing about this track is that it amply allows each musician the opportunity to express themselves individually one after another with none alike, making for a stimulating listening experience. Bravo.
- “I Cover The Waterfront”
I already love this particular song, so I was excited to hear what George Shearing would do with it. I wasn’t disappointed. Performing this tune as a solo feature, Shearing transforms the tune into a rhapsodic study in Debussy, and that’s no hyperbole. There are numerous references to Debussy in the arrangement (the arpegios from his “Arabesque No.1 , for example), resulting in one of the most moving performances of the entire album. This is all the more impressive considering he started the piece by telling a joke.
- “Love Walked In”
One thing that’s readily apparent when listening to this album is that George Shearing was a man that wore many hats. In the span of just three songs, Shearing went from tasty, in-the-pocket piano to Debussy to… Erroll Garner. Numerous times in his career, Shearing’s admiration and respect for fellow pianist and contemporary Erroll Garner revealed itself in his music and it does so here. This tune features the trio of piano, bass and drums. Rather quickly into his solo, Shearing adopts the rolling, swinging comping style of Garner, complete with the occasional percussive punctuation. It’s not a parody though; while Shearing is employing Garner’s style in his left hand, it’s Shearing that’s soloing in the right.
- “There With You”
This track knocked me over the first time I played it. Yes it’s done in that classic Shearing Sound that veers close to ‘elevator music’, but man is it a potently beautiful sound when executed correctly as it is here. The song, written by former Shearing guitarist Dick Garcia, is gorgeous and highly memorable, made all the more by Shearing’s arrangement. Achingly beautiful.
- “Bel Aire”
Yet again, Shearing throws a curve ball (which, considering he was blind, makes for quite the curved ball). After a program that had consisted of mellow grooves and mid-tempo struts, “Bel Aire” comes breezing in like a… well, like a Chevy Bel Air.
Counting off a fleet tempo, the Shearing group jumps into a hard-swinging ride that contains some of the most exciting solos on the whole record. Guitarist John Gray gets some punchy pickings into his two-chorus solo, then Burton vibrantly vibes out in a single chorus before handing it off to Shearing. Shearing starts simply, sailing saliently. Soon, Shearing searingly shreds. Seriously though, Shearing’s solo has a climactic finish, with some two-handed piano and a familiar jazz phrase for good measure.
In short, this is a fine album with solid playing by all hands. Speaking of which, this edition of George Shearing’s quintet may have seemed like a sleeper, but it had some heat in its ranks. For example, the great yet underappreciated drummer Vernel Fournier. Formerly with Ahmad Jamal (he’s the drummer on “Poinciana”), Fournier (pronounced “forn-ee-aye” because it’s French) was a tasty drummer and nasty with brushes. The big name in the group however is Gary Burton. By the time he played this concert in early 1963, Burton had two albums as leader under his belt, but this was the highest profile job he had had, bringing him a lot of exposure. Burton would go on to higher heights as a sideman with Stan Getz and then as a leader, recording and performing up to 2017, when he finally retired.
The main takeaway from this album is that George Shearing was an enigma. He had numerous personalities on the piano, all different and all fully developed. Just when you thought you knew who he was, he would change it up. That aspect alone makes this album a fascinating and stimulating record. Over at Allmusic, Scott Yanow has this apt description of the group:
“Although the group always had a dominant easy-listening sound, a lot of hard-swinging often took place beneath the surface, particularly during their live sets.”
True story. And I still haven’t figured out which songs to spotlight.
Raggy Waltz Rating: D+
If they had just used the photograph as the cover, they would’ve been safe. But instead, they made the photo small and tried to make the printed words the art. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do this. Reid Miles has shown us two ways of how to do this the right way. Case en point:
Unlike Capitol, Reid Miles used a solid-color background as a canvas for his printed art. He used color in the print to make it visually interesting as well. This created a clean, modern, and artistic product. Capitol didn’t do any of this, and as a result created a rather busy, cluttered cover. It’s not out and out terrible, but the music inside deserved a better presentation. And then the person who put the cover on put it on crooked. Yikes.
Leonard Feather appeared on the backs of many albums, many of which surprise me. I never thought of him as a fan of Shearing, especially to the point where he’d write some liner notes for him. They’re a solid set of liner notes, too, marred only by the same print design from the cover. They’re filled with interesting bits of info. It should be noted that Shearing told Feather that Cal Tjader was one of the three best vibraphonists in the country, alongside Milt Jackson and Gary Burton.
For a while in the 1960’s, Capitol Records designated a special status to its jazz albums, releasing them in the series ‘Dimensions In Jazz’, complete with their own special labels. Pressed on thick vinyl, these brown labels are an example of the special labels. Expertly recorded in stereo by Capitol’s finest, the recording sounds delicious. There’s almost no groove wear either, which contributes to the deliciousness of the recording. The stereo sound stage is spacious without any super hard panning, with Shearing in the center and everyone else radiating out from either side while the audience is distributed evenly throughout. The spaciousness of the auditorium is captured on the recording too, making this a real ‘you-are-there’ listening experience.
Also, let’s take some time to appreciate the catalog number of this album. 1992. Amen and amen.
The Place of Acquisition
Three years ago, I walked into the local Huntsville record store, Vertical House Records, and found both this record and another live Shearing album recorded in San Francisco. Like a dope, I only picked up this one, thinking I could get the other one later. Silly me.