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