[I wrote these track reviews of iconic Errol Garner performances in 2006 for Ted Gioia’s website jazz.com. The jazz.com project featured articles, interviews, an encyclopedia of musicians, and these 100-word track reviews. All of the content is still posted, but the site is not currently being updated.]
An early solo recording—from 1945—released on Yesterdays 1944-1949 (Naxos Jazz Legends 8120528):
“Yesterdays”: While his trio arrangements typically included a solo piano introduction, “Yesterdays” (originally from the 1933 Broadway musical Roberta) is a fantastic window into Erroll Garner’s solo piano concept. In one of his earliest recordings after his New York arrival, Garner’s appreciation of the great Art Tatum is evident from his use of customary Tatum techniques, including offbeat left-hand chordal accents, expansive runs covering the length of keyboard, walking tenths, harmonic substitutions, and a few of Tatum’s signature right-hand fills. In this arrangement, Garner exhibits the masterful sense of form and variation of a skilled composer.
And a 1949 trio date released on Savoy as part of the album Serenade To Laura with bassist John Simmons and drummer Alvin Stoller:
“She’s Funny That Way”: Early in his New York City performance career, Erroll Garner substituted for Art Tatum in Tatum’s trio with Slam Stewart. This popular 1928 composition, covered famously by both the Dorsey Brothers and Benny Goodman bands, was also a staple of Tatum’s repertoire. Garner’s approach exhibits a gently rocking, slow swing, punctuated with his characteristic Freddie Green-style left-hand pulsations. The melancholy of the song’s lyrics remains intact through the magic of Garner’s invocation of the blues: his right-hand weaves around the beat, mixing evocative chordal slides with elements of the blues, repeated notes and intense octave runs, all with a masterful attention to phrasing and dynamics.
From the 1954 album Contrasts (Heritage Jazz/Polygram 515622Z), featuring Wyatt Ruther (bass) and Eugene “Fats” Heard (drums):
“7-11 Jump”: This is Erroll Garner at his swinging best. His orchestral approach to the piano is on full display, chorus after chorus. The song’s “rhythm changes” form is the perfect vehicle for this extended improvisation. Fats Heard proves a fantastically sympathetic accompanist, never missing an opportunity to provide just the right fill to set up Garner’s next move. Garner’s use of sequence, balance of repetition and variation, and careful attention to register and dynamics is a study in piano improvisation. Recorded as part of an epic recording session that yielded material for several albums, this track stands out for the sheer amount of music—over seven minutes of Garner at the top of his game.
“I’ve Got to be a Rug-cutter”: The contrast between Erroll Garner’s left and right hands sometimes creates the aural illusion of two separate tempos. Despite this track’s quick tempo, Garner takes his time on this Ellington gem. The composition was an early hit for Duke’s band with vocalist Ivie Anderson and was featured in the 1937 film, The Hit Parade. Art Tatum’s influence is evident here, but Garner makes every note his own. Fats Heard’s masterful brushwork perfectly complements Garner, who varies pianistic styles from his standard left-hand chording to “locked hands,” polyphonic contrary motion, and more orchestral, two-handed chordal passages.
At the same recording session, he recorded several tracks with the same trio (Ruther and Heard) with the addition of Candido Camero on congas, including this track which was released on Mambo Moves Garner (Mercury 834909-2):
“That Old Black Magic”: Mambo Moves Garner was Erroll Garner’s first recording with a conga player. For this arrangement of the popular Harold Arlen tune, Garner trades his ‘four on the floor’ left-hand accompaniment for variations on a 3-2 Cuban son clave, while bassist Ruther’s lines suggest a tumbao pattern at times. While conguero Candido’s role is clearly one of accompaniment, this piece is far from kitsch novelty. Rather, it reflects an effective fusion of styles, with Garner’s indelible musical personality shining through in a new, refreshing context. As a result of this album’s success, Garner revisited the piano trio + conga configuration throughout his career.
From the essential album Concert By The Sea (Columbia CK-40589), recorded in 1955 in Carmel, California, with Eddie Calhoun on bass Denzil Best on drums:
“It’s All Right with Me”: “Partly attributed to his well-documented inability to read music, Erroll Garner’s pianistic voice is one of the most distinctive in jazz history. On this, his most famous live recording, we hear how his individual style projects from his very core—his grunting sub-vocalizations are so audible that they could be considered another instrument in the ensemble! As in most performances, Garner runs the gamut of emotions and musical techniques: soft, smooth and subtle at one turn, and aggressive, insistent and even rough at the next. He is ultimately self-assured and driven as leader of this classic trio. Truly an inspired performance.”
“Teach Me Tonight”: This popular Cahn-DePaul composition, published in 1953, has attracted the attention of many musicians across several genres. (It has most recently been recorded by British pop star and tabloid magazine diva Amy Winehouse!) Erroll Garner eschews his normal rhapsodic introduction in favor of jumping right into a slow, solid swing. A wide range of pianistic techniques is on display: a mix of intricate solo lines, full-fisted harmonies, and shifts of feel. His guttural sub-vocalizations add to the plaintive insistence of this rendition—those who are familiar with the song’s lyric will find it implied just beneath every note Garner plays. A deceptive cadence and short tag serve to prolong the lover’s plea for just a few more bars.
From the re-packaged double release Close-Up in Swing & A New Kind of Love (Telarc CD-83383), two trio tracks recorded in 1961 with Calhoun and drummer Kelly Martin, and one with orchestra from 1963:
“The Best Things in Life Are Free”: This composition premiered on September 6, 1927, as part of the Broadway show Good News. In 1961 Erroll Garner was in the middle of a contract dispute with several record labels; part of his solution for creative control was to found and record for his own label, Octave. Viewed in this light, recording this particular song during that session assumes an ironic subtext: at the heart of the dispute was the unauthorized release of several albums, for which Garner had to seek legal recourse in order to collect proper compensation. Despite these battles, Garner perseveres on this track, preserving the ebullient nonchalance of the original composition.
“St. Louis Blues”: Erroll Garner fans may take that steady left-hand chording for granted. On this recording, Garner varies his left-hand playing, punctuating the A section of the melody to great effect by substituting a more syncopated pattern for his usual four-on-the-floor method. Drummer Kelly Martin calls attention to this contrast by supporting Garner’s left hand with similar accents on the cymbals before switching to brushes for the straight-ahead swing passages. Moving into the improvisation, Garner and company take off the gloves for some down-and-dirty blues. During exciting stop-time passages, Garner stretches the harmonic limits of his solo lines before returning to more tested ground. On the out chorus, the trio reverts to the original feel for the final statement of the melody and a long vamp-out.
Theme from A New Kind of Love: Released in 1963, the comedic film A New Kind of Love, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, featured original compositions by Erroll Garner. The theme features an ensemble consisting of a big band with strings. As in other recordings, Garner alternates a Latin feel (in this case, the cha-cha-chá) with swing sections. Garner once again gives primacy to the main theme, but still provides himself a little space for a few improvisatory passages. The horn sections are unfortunately relegated to incidental fillers, but the overall arrangement provides propulsion that is somewhat suggestive of the bustling Parisian locales in which the film was set.
And lastly, from the album Erroll Garner Plays Gershwin & Kern (1985 Re-Issue Vinyl LP) (Emarcy 8262242), recorded in 1965, featuring Calhoun on bass and Martin on drums:
“Love Walked In”: Calling the solo piano section that begins this track an “introduction” is a great disservice to Erroll Garner. The through-composed, harmonically adventurous and seemingly unrelated introductions that are a hallmark of his recordings are augmented here, consuming half the track’s length. Garner achieves his highest level of pianistic expression, displaying complete mastery of the keyboard while elaborating on the main theme with quasi-Romantic inclinations. Gently ushering in his trio, Garner settles into a beautiful, easy ballad. As in most Garner trio recordings, bassist and drummer play an ancillary role, allowing Garner’s vision for the recording to proceed in a clear and truly masterful fashion.
“Strike Up the Band”: Here, as he so often did, Erroll Garner performs a seemingly unrelated introduction. Punchy, dissonant, deceptively out-of-time gestures belie the straight-ahead swinging nature on which Garner’s trio embarks in this rendition of the 1927 Gershwin standard from an eponymous musical. Even though the original production was unsuccessful, this song, along with “The Man I Love,” proved to be hugely popular, and each in time became a standard. In his improvisations, Garner exercises remarkable contrast, at times appearing to trade eights with himself. Garner fans will appreciate how this track in many ways epitomizes his inimitable pianistic style, which proved consistently effective and popular throughout his career.