From the archives

Ge­of­frey Smith on a re­mark­able Er­roll Gar­ner early 1960s live con­cert res­cued from the vaults

BBC Music Magazine - - Jazz -

It’s pretty clear that, in the years since his death in 1977, Er­roll Gar­ner has been a ne­glected clas­sic, at least in com­par­i­son with the su­per­star sta­tus he com­manded in his hal­cyon prime. In the 1950s and ’60s, the elfin pi­anist was not a just a jazz name, but a main­stream celebrity on a par with Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Arm­strong. His con­certs were sell­out af­fairs, pre­sented by the clas­si­cal im­pre­sario Sal Hurok.

What was most ex­tra­or­di­nary about his ac­claim was that he achieved it sim­ply by play­ing jazz in his uniquely joy­ous style. Never mak­ing any con­ces­sions to show­man­ship, Gar­ner ad­dressed not a word to his lis­ten­ers – he just bounced on stage and be­gan to play, ac­com­pa­nied self-ef­fac­ingly by bass and drums. But as a mu­si­cal per­son­al­ity he was ir­re­sistible, a self-taught vir­tu­oso who ob­vi­ously loved play­ing the pi­ano and turned stan­dard tunes into amaz­ing flights of melody, rhap­sody, wit and head-shak­ing swing, en­tranc­ing au­di­ences with spon­ta­neous magic.

Though his pop­u­lar­ity tran­scended the jazz niche, Gar­ner was truly a jazz clas­sic, his per­sonal spell demon­strat­ing just how thrilling the mu­sic can be. And that time­less Gar­ner ef­fect comes leap­ing to life in new record­ing of a con­cert at Am­s­ter­dam’s Con­cert­ge­bouw from 1964. Never be­fore is­sued in full, Night­con­cert (Mack Av­enue MAC 1142) shows the pi­anist in vin­tage form, de­ploy­ing the full ar­ray of his sui generis tal­ents: the trade­mark free-form in­tro­duc­tion of ‘Where or When’, for in­stance, with plung­ing, asym­met­ri­cal chords sud­denly re­solv­ing into the tune’s easy, driv­ing swing; ‘On Green Dol­phin Street’, its Latin in­ter­lude graced with del­i­cate pi­anis­si­mos; a bal­lad, ‘All Yours’, with a ro­man­tic, rhap­so­dis­ing right hand over a hushed, al­most mo­tion­less tempo, and the strum­ming swing of the Gar­ner left hand un­der­pin­ning the arch­ing lines of the blues. It’s all punc­tu­ated with the pi­anist’s en­dear­ing growls of plea­sure at his own play­ing, and fre­quent bursts of ap­plause from the Con­cert­ge­bouw au­di­ence. Be­yond that, it’s just pure mu­sic, pure Gar­ner, a wel­come re­turn for an old, eter­nally youth­ful mas­ter.

The great­est jazz play­ers and their mu­sic are ex­plored in Ge­of­frey Smith’s Jazz, a weekly programme broad­cast on Satur­days from 12am-1am

‘Pure mu­sic’:Er­roll Gar­ner ex­uded sheer plea­sure

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