About this Recording
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‘Erroll Garner Plays Misty’ Original Recordings 1953-1954

Erroll Garner was a true original. No pianist sounded like him before he rose to prominence in the mid-1940s, and few ever played with his consistent joy. Throughout his career, Garner defied several stereotypes. He was always very popular yet never watered down his music. His style did not change much after 1950 yet it never became stale, overly predictable or safe. In a time when jazz was being seen as more ‘serious’ and less entertaining, Garner had no trouble exciting large crowds. And although he never learned to read music, he wrote several notable compositions including ‘Misty’. Music seemed to magically flow through Erroll Garner, and he gave the impression that he never even needed to look at the keyboard; all he had to do was sit down at the piano.

Erroll Garner was born 15 June 1921 in Pittsburgh. His older brother Linton Garner was a fine pianist although one who settled in Canada and never became that famous. Erroll developed his technique early on and, by the time he was ten, he was playing on the radio with the Kan-D-Kids. After getting out of school, Garner worked professionally in the Pittsburgh area for a few years including with the Leroy Brown Orchestra during 1938-41. In 1944 he moved to New York and for a year was a member of bassist Slam Stewart’s trio. It would be the last time he would work regularly as a sideman.

Garner began recording as a leader in late 1944. By the time he left Stewart’s group, he had developed his own recognizable style. On medium-tempo pieces, he often stated every beat with his left hand like a chordal rhythm guitar while his right played chords slightly behind the beat, creating a distinctive echo effect. On ballads, Garner tended to be rhapsodic and emotional, hinting at cocktail pianists but utilizing much more sophisticated chord voicings. In addition, he delighted in creating playful free-form introductions to tunes that did not give hints to his bassist and drummer what song was coming up. Garner’s unclassifiable style to an extent emulated a swing era orchestra but he was flexible enough to fit into the world of bop too. In 1946 he recorded a session with Charlie Parker and sounded quite comfortable. Garner’s popularity grew steadily during 1945-50 and his fame became international after having a successful visit to France in 1948.

One of Garner’s great skills was his ability to sit at the piano and record one gem after another. It was not unusual for him to record enough material in one session for two or three albums, all first takes, all well worth hearing.

The material on this collection dates from three sessions from 1953-54 which resulted in a remarkable total of 54 selections, 24 cut on 27 July 1954 alone. Both bassist Wyatt Ruther and drummer Fats Heard made their debuts as members of Garner’s trio on the 27 February 1953 session and they toured regularly with Garner until late 1954. Ruther and Heard played quietly and with solid swing, following their leader’s every move for, if they did not pay close attention, they would be immediately lost!

Stompin’ At The Savoy is given a hardswinging and concise treatment. As was always the case with Garner, he keeps the melody close by even during his most adventurous moments. I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm has an abstract introduction before settling into a medium-tempo groove, one full of passionate chordings and witty changes in dynamics. You Are My Sunshine races along at a fast pace and has a few unexpected key changes that make the music even more dramatic. If there was any doubt about Garner’s virtuosity, this version of “You Are My Sunshine” can serve as proof that few other pianists have ever been at his level.

The way that I’ve Got The World On A String starts out, one would swear that it was going to resolve into a blues instead of a cheerful swing standard. It is full of unexpected mood changes. Rosalie is swung with more ferocity than one imagines its composer Cole Porter ever envisioned.

Duke Ellington’s In A Mellotone is reharmonized in colourful fashion by Garner before he adopts a lighter touch for most of the song. Don’t Worry ’Bout Me is taken at what could be called an ‘Erroll Garner ballad tempo’, a very slow pace that allows the pianist to draw out every note and infuse it with his sincere emotions. In contrast, All Of A Sudden (My Heart Sings) is normally taken very slow, so Garner treats the song as an exuberant romp that fits its title.

Misty is heard here in its earliest recording. It has since been recorded hundreds of times by other artists including Sarah Vaughan who made the definitive vocal version, but all of its tenderness and warmth can be heard in this one beautiful chorus. Duke Ellington’s I’ve Got To Be A Rug Cutter never became a big hit but its explosive joy was a natural for Garner to explore and build upon.

There’s A Small Hotel features Garner’s chordal approach to drawing out the melody of a ballad. Exactly Like You is taken slower than usual but proves to be quite effective at the relaxed tempo.

George Shearing has always loved to imitate Erroll Garner for the fun of it, so it is a joy to hear Garner playing Shearing’s biggest hit Lullaby Of Birdland, sounding like himself while displaying some of the ideas that Shearing ‘borrows’ now and then. On this performance, Garner gives one the impression that he could have played for seventeen minutes rather than seven without running out of exciting ideas. Avalon starts out with one of the pianist’s most whimsical introductions before he attacks the song at a dizzying tempo while always sounding relaxed.

There Is No Greater Love is taken so slowly that at first one wonders whether Garner will be able to hold on to one’s attention throughout the six minutes. However the pianist’s wit, creativity and that wonderful Garner sound make this a highpoint. An uptempo Will You Still Be Mine ends the collection with outbursts of joy and some of the happiest choruses one will ever hear.

Throughout his career, Erroll Garner never dropped in popularity or lost his enthusiasm for playing music. He remained a major force until illness forced his retirement in early 1975. He passed away in Los Angeles on 2 January 1977 at the age of 55. Nearly thirty years later, no successor has taken his place and one suspects that that statement will still be true a century from now. There was only one Erroll Garner.

Scott Yanow – author of nine jazz books including Jazz On Film, Swing, Bebop, Trumpet Kings and Jazz On Record 1917-76

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