Tag Archives: George Shearing

For the 99th Birth Anniversary of George Shearing (1919-2011), A 2002 Interview Conducted for the

For the 99th birth anniversary of the iconic pianist-composer-bandleader George Shearing, here’s an interview that I conducted with him 2002 in preparation for the liner notes of a Pablo release of a 1957 Newport Jazz Festival concert on which his group shared the bill with the Cannonball Adderley Quintet. I’ve appended the notes after the interview, which is unedited.

 

George Shearing (7-23-02):

TP: I’m writing the notes for an album on Pablo. It documents a concert you were on at the Newport Festival in July 1957. Cannonball Adderley came on for the first half, your quintet came on for the second half, there’s one track in which you played “Soul Station” with Cannonball, Nat and your group, and then your band concludes the concert. I was hoping I could speak with you to see if you have any memory at all of the event…

SHEARING: I don’t know whether this is the worst news you’ve heard today, but I really have no musical memory of the date. Sure, I was there, but when I was there, I was 38. Now I’m 83.

TP: I absolutely understand. I wanted to speak about where that event fit into the quotidian of your quintet, and where the selections you used fit into the general pattern of your performance at the time… Firstly, in 1957, your quintet was one of the most popular acts in all of jazz. You were playing, I would assume, quite a number of lounges and nightclubs with it, I’d assume a certain complement of concerts and touring…

SHEARING: More concerts now than then.

TP: So in 1957 not so many concerts.

SHEARING: Not so many. What we would be doing in those days was if either Birdland or somewhere had a tour, we would be doing one of those tours.

TP: So you would tour with the Birdland-Morris Levy junkets as opposed to the Norman Granz, junkets.

SHEARING: Yes, generally.

TP: In an average year, during the first 7-8 years of the quintet after your breakthroughs, from 1949 to 1957-58…

SHEARING: The first place we played was Cafe Society downtown. Then once we started doing the concerts in the early ’50s, we would be doing whole tours.

TP: In concert halls. Would your presentation be different in a concert hall vis-a-vis a nightclub?

SHEARING: It would be about the same. Because when my set ended, when I started going Afro-Cuban in the ’50s, we would end with some kind of a flagwaving situation, whether it was a concert or a nightclub, because that’s the nature of what happens in the show. A show builds to its end. You don’t end with an opening act, for instance.

TP: Did the more subtle arrangements maybe go by the board a little more in concerts, and the more declarative ones…

SHEARING: Yes, I would think so. I’m not conscious of doing it, but it would be a normal development, I would say.

TP: And during those years, what percentage would you be playing clubs and what percentage concerts? Of course, outdoor event were unusual.

SHEARING: I would play more concerts then than I play now, believe it or not. Although of course, I don’t play many concerts now. I kind of choose what I want to do now. I’m in my eighties, and I don’t have to grab everything that comes to my attention.

TP: You don’t have to work 300 days a year now.

SHEARING: No. We would have a regular stream of clubs, like Birdland, Storyville, the Blue Note in Chicago and later on the London House.

TP: And you’d be in there for long residencies, two-three weeks.

SHEARING: At London House, we would, and I guess we were at the Blue Note for two or three weeks, too. That was the first out-of-town job with the Quintet, in 1949, after we played the Cafe Society. I remember Frank Holzstein, who directed the Blue Note in Chicago, and the Ambassador from England came in one night, and Frank got such a charge of announcing him. He said, “I’m very pleased to have Mr. Barkley Gage…” [ETC.]

TP: I would imagine that at Birdland you were always on a double or triple bill. Was that a common thing for you to do?

SHEARING: Yes, I would say so. And of course, the strength of the quintet, when we had the Latin stuff to finish with… We usually closed the show. Never mind our set; we would close the show. Because maybe it would need piano-bass-and-drums to open…

TP: Say, the Bud Powell Trio would open.

SHEARING: That’s right. Or even a pianist…

TP: Billy Taylor or somebody.

SHEARING: Right. And we would close, because we had musical strength, and some of the records we were doing were successful. We recorded “Lullaby of Birdland” in 1952. It took me 15-20 minutes to write. I was sitting, eating a steak in my dining room where we were living in New Jersey, and suddenly this thing came to me [SINGS FAMOUS 4-BARS] I think that if you contrive something, or they want me to write something to see what can I do, they are not usually the successful compositions.

TP: It’s the inspirations of the moment.

SHEARING: That’s right.

TP: Was “Conception” like that?

SHEARING: A little bit. But yes, I’d say so.

TP: That tune continues to fascinate musicians on a musical level.

SHEARING: Yes, the bridge is a bit tricky. Of course, in Miles Davis’ particular style, he would have his own bridge. He wouldn’t play my bridge. I don’t know why… I knew Miles as a young man in his twenties. He didn’t drink anything except Coke, he’d just come and sit down and hear me every night, and we’d talk for hours. That’s not the same Miles we knew later on, when he…

TP: After he lost his voice.

SHEARING: [LAUGHS] That’s right.

TP: But where I’m going with this question about whether it would be commonplace to share a bill with others… Maybe the Basie band or the Ellington band or Machito might be in residence at Birdland.

SHEARING: Absolutely. In which case we would not close! [LAUGHS] No, not really! It would be very much of an anticlimax, wouldn’t it.

TP: Would it be commonplace for your band to be sitting in with other featured artists, or take them as guests?

SHEARING: No.

TP: So this is really an exception, for Cannonball and Nat Adderley to be setting up a spontaneous arrangement with your band.

SHEARING: Yes, I would say so. You see, John Levy managed Cannonball and he managed me. Capitol didn’t come into my life until 1955. John, of course, was my first bass player. When he gave up the quintet, he gave up playing, and became management. He managed Cannonball, Nancy Wilson, Dakota Staton…

TP: A lot of the most popular acts who played the inner city circuit of clubs were under his management.

SHEARING: Yes, indeed. I worked in great interest of the black people. I noticed that when we tried to check into a hotel in Salt Lake City, John Levy was with me, and he asked the clerk, “Do you have a reservation for Mr. Shearing?” He said, “Yes, we do.” He said, “Could we make that a twin?” Frankly, I thought the guy was rather impudent. He said, “Who is the other fellow?” John, of course, not wanting to say anything, although the other fellow was white, said, “The other fellow is Dick Garcia.” “Well, I don’t know whether we have a twin right now.” So John said, “Well, could you put them into two singles and change them when they wake up?” He said, “Then I’d have to charge twice, wouldn’t I.” That’s when I took over. I said, “No, you wouldn’t.” I said, “You’ve been spending this time to find out whether the other fellow is black or white. I’ll tell you now, he’s a white man.” I said, “The gentleman you’re talking to, by the way, is my manager, and I issue an order that you deal with him politely, otherwise you’ll have the pleasure of reading about it in the press.” He said, “Mr. Shearing, you and I could get along.” I said, “Not at all. We refer to you as a public servant, and you’re here to serve the public and the best things for the public in general. I happen to be a member of that organization. I repeat, if you don’t deal with us properly, you’ll read about it in the press.”

TP: Did that resolve the issue?

SHEARING: Oh, yes. Certainly there was a room for Dick Garcia… Oh, yes, it was all solved. And as I say, it should be. It should be anyway, black or white. As it happened, since he couldn’t find out, he’d better not take a chance, so he refused the white customer! So that’s where I kind of got down on him. “Mr. Shearing, you and I can get along.” I said, “Oh, no. I’m paying you my money, you’re a member of the public, you’re here to serve me. I’m not here to get along with you. I’m paying you my money. I won’t be ever seeing you again, with the outlook that you have.” When we got outside, John said, “You know, they’re going to send somebody after you.” I said, “Good. Let’s publicize it. It’s a disgrace. Let’s see it in the press.”

TP: So you were playing a number of concerts, not too many outdoor festivals, John Levy booked the event, and therefore, Cannonball is one client, you’re another client, and thus you’re on the same bill. Had this ever happened before with Cannonball and Nat, to your recollection?

SHEARING: I don’t think so. I don’t know when it first happened. But he was one of my very favorite players.

TP: Did it happen again, that he would sit in with you?

SHEARING: We both had our own groups.

TP: And very well arranged. He had his act and you had yours.

SHEARING: Exactly.

TP: Tell me about your impressions of Cannonball, and, if you had a relationship with Cannon, the nature of it. Your sense of him as a player and musician and public figure.

SHEARING: Well, he seemed to be a very well educated man. I love his playing. Really. Both of them. Nat, too.

TP: He had a beautiful, communicative, declarative style on the trumpet.

SHEARING: Oh yes. I love Cannon’s playing.

TP: As someone who was on 52nd Street and heard everyone close-up and personal many, many times, where… Cannonball is the next generation. How do you see his playing vis-a-vis the original bebop players and the others you came in contact with on 52nd Street.

SHEARING: You can’t compare him with Charlie Parker, because Charlie Parker had a very distinctive style of his own. He and Dizzy were the founders of bebop. Together, they were a miracle.

TP: Did you hear them play unisons?

SHEARING: Yes, of course I did. That’s what I mean when they were absolutely miraculous. [hybrid third instrument]

TP: Did you have your ears wide-open during the ’50s when you were touring? Were you aware of everything consequential that was going on?

SHEARING: Oh, yes.

TP: So you had taken notice of Cannonball, as you’d shared a manager.

SHEARING: Yes.

TP: What do you recall as your first impression of him?

SHEARING: Great big sound. Wonderful facility. A very intelligent man, obviously. Oh, I loved him.

TP: Did you have any personal relationship to speak of?

SHEARING: No.

TP: I’ll run down the tunes. Please tell me what you recall. “Pawn Ticket.”

SHEARING: That’s Ray Bryant’s, I believe.

TP: You recorded a number of his tunes over the years. They’re very catchy and melodic.

SHEARING: A lot. I liked them. They’re melodic, they’re strong, and they come from somebody who really knew how to play the piano.

TP: On “It Never Entered My Mind,” your arrangement superimposes the harmonies of Satie on top of it.

SHEARING: Right. I believe that’s a Rodgers & Hart tune, a standard tune. The Satie was part of “Nuages Gymnopedie.”

TP: Which brings up another issue. You’ve mentioned in interviews that as a child you had a piano teacher in England, a Mr. Lyndon Lodge, who after a certain amount of time informed your parents that you shouldn’t bother with Classical studies…

SHEARING: “It’s obvious that this man is going to be a jazz pianist.”

TP: Why did he think it was obvious that you were going to be a jazz pianist?

SHEARING: I guess I didn’t pay too much attention. I should have learned 16 bars in the ensuing week instead of 4. When I went back to that school, I’d played a number of symphony concerts, played two or three different Mozart concerti, and I said to the teacher, who was still there, “Do you remember the advice you gave my parents when I was 16?” He said, “Yes, I do.” I said, “Has it come to your attention that I’ve played a number of symphony concerts?” He said, “Yes, it has.” I said, “With that knowledge, were you to give them advice today, what would it be?” He said, “Yes.” “Why?” He had said, “Your musical thoughts at your fingers go first and foremost through jazz, and you do this naturally.” You convert classics …(?)…” Years later, he said, “My advice would be the same.” “Why? I’ve played a number of symphony concerts.” He said, “Yes, but I expect your main dollar comes from playing jazz.” I said, “Yes, it does.” He said, “My advice would be the same.” A very wise man.

TP: Well, you did not grow up, to say the least, in circumstances of material comfort.

SHEARING: No. Not at all. And no musicians in the family. None for at least 500 years! I’m serious. There’s a genealogist in England, Mrs. Race, and she went back and discovered for the last 500 years that nobody was a musician in my family in any way that she could ascertain.

TP: When did it become apparent that you had musical gifts? During music lessons?

SHEARING: Yes. When I could go the piano and play things. I remember my sisters on Sunday morning, they all [SINGS THEIR PRACTICE], mostly black notes. Of course, being blind, I wouldn’t know them. I’ve done a little of each — self-taught and I’ve trained to play classical music.

TP: Was absorbing classical music and becoming a proficient interpreter of it always important to you? Did it always speak to you?

SHEARING: Yes. I feel that every musician, whether Jazz, Classical or somewhere in between, should be a thorough musician.

TP: There’s a feature for Emil Richards, “There Will Never Be Another You.” Was it commonplace for you to feature your instrumentalists in live performance?

SHEARING: Yes.

TP: Your succession of vibraphonists was Marjorie Hyams for a few years, then Don Elliott, then Joe Roland, then Cal Tjader. Several great ones cut their teeth with you. In 1949, when Leonard Feather suggested the vibes-guitar format to you, it happened…

SHEARING: Buddy DeFranco and I had a quartet, with clarinet, piano, bass and drums, and Buddy wanted to work with a unit that was purely his own. I had to do something. So Leonard Feather suggested Marjorie and Chuck Wayne.

TP: The other version is that Buddy was negotiating with Capitol and you were with MGM…

SHEARING: I was with MGM from 1949 to 1955. I did things before then for Discovery and Savoy… Savoy was a trio. I don’t remember who it was.

TP: Was it with who you played with on 52nd Street?

SHEARING: J.C. Heard and Oscar? No. We never recorded.

TP: What a shame.

SHEARING: It is.

TP: What was it like to play with Oscar Pettiford?

SHEARING: Well, it’s a real foundation, isn’t it.

TP: So you had to go separate ways…

SHEARING: Yes, and Leonard suggested Marjorie and Chuck. Of course, I was using what we call the locked-hands style anyway, so obviously, Marjorie on top and Chuck an octave lower, and me in both registers with all the locked chords in between. That was the quintet sound.

TP: Did that conception come to you with the same instantaneous sense of revelation as “Lullaby of Birdland”?

SHEARING: Yes. Frankly, I think the description of that sound that everybody would know is, let’s say, the Glenn Miller saxophone section. The clarinet would be playing the same as the vibes, the guitar would be playing the same as the tenor, and I would be playing the long-haired stuff in between. Therefore, we got three voices on the front line.

TP: I’d assume you were quite familiar from the interrelation of piano and guitar from the Nat Cole Trio and the popularity of that format.

SHEARING: Yes.

TP: How about the vibraphone? What was the model in your mind’s ear for the role of vibes in that group apart from the orchestrative aspect?

SHEARING: Upper register. Playing in the upper register. Leonard Feather suggested that I use Marjorie Hyams and Chuck Wayne on vibes and guitar, along with John Levy on bass and Denzil Best on drums. That’s where the quintet came from, and we did a recording for Discovery, before moving to MGM.

TP: Emil Richards stayed with you for a fair amount of time, four or five years. Describe him as a musician. He was so versatile.

SHEARING: Well, he was a studio man. Not only was he a good jazz player, but he was a studio man, so he could read anything you put in front of him. It’s important that those three instruments — vibes, guitar and piano — stay close together, and for the bass always to be on the right note provided in his part, or he knows the chord structure enough to fit in. But mostly I’d write the bass part.

TP: So for this to work, it was necessary that everyone be quite cognizant for the parts they had to play. There wasn’t a great deal of room for the musicians to stretch out.

SHEARING: That’s correct.

TP: So someone playing with you had to be able to improvise and express their personality when called for, but also have the discipline to know…

SHEARING: How to read.

TP: By the way, how would you convey the arrangements? Obviously with sheet music, but some people sing the parts…

SHEARING: I’d give them a sheet.

TP: The guitarist was Toots Thielemans. How long was he with you?

SHEARING: A good three or four years. I used to feature him on harmonica, too, because he was a wonderful harmonica player.

TP: Again, give me the kind of capsule description as you did with Emil Richards.

SHEARING: See, he was guitar and Emil was vibes. So they needed to both play the same melodies an octave apart.

TP: I was thinking of the characteristics that distinguished him to you as a musician.

SHEARING: Toots was a great harmonica player, and I’d feature him on that. Then he played enough guitar to be in the quintet.

TP: So you used him more sectionally as a guitarist, and soloistically as a harmonica player.

SHEARING: Well, that would be my first aim with anybody. Then, during the show, we would feature what there was to feature. In other words, Thielemans on harmonica and Emil still with the vibes.

TP: And you would use Emil Richards’ percussion skills for detail and color.

SHEARING: Oh yes.

TP: Al McKibbon is the bassist. He was with you a long time.

SHEARING: Oh, yes. About seven or eight years, if not more.

TP: Did he replace John Levy?

SHEARING: Yes. He came to me from Dizzy Gillespie’s band when they had Chano Pozo, so he really understood the Latin thing. When Cal Tjader was with me as well, those two… Oftentimes, there would be no keyboard instrument to play. Al would be playing either conga or cowbell or something, and Thielemans would play guiro or shekere, and Emil would be playing timbales. So we had a good Latin rhythm section. But no notes…

TP: No harmonic instrument.

SHEARING: Yes.

TP: Except for you.

SHEARING: Yes. Well, I would even lay out.

TP: By the way, were there any Latin piano players who were influences on you?

SHEARING: I listened to Noro Morales quite a bit.

TP: Did he play in New York in the early ’50s?

SHEARING: I believe so. The first Latin band I heard was Machito, in 1949, when I was playing with Buddy DeFranco in the quartet at the Clique Club. We would have to follow Machito!

TP: Oh, my God.

SHEARING: Or Machito would follow us.

TP: A better scenario.

SHEARING: I would think so! I just did the best I could. I learned a lot from Machito, of course.

TP: Were you friends with him?

SHEARING: Yeah. We didn’t go out to dinner or anything…

TP: But did you speak with him? Dizzy Gillespie learned a lot about Latin music from being in a section with Mario Bauza. Did you learn from talking to a lot of the Latin musicians you played with on 52nd Street?

SHEARING: I just listened. You learn a lot more by listening than by talking.

TP: Did playing Latin music and playing in clave come naturally for you?

SHEARING: Yes.

TP: That takes us to “Old Devil Moon.” I assume you played that arrangement a fair amount.

SHEARING: Al McKibbon told me about that bass part, which he introduced into “Old Devil Moon.” He did it with me. McKibbon would be really on beat with that stuff. But purposefully. That’s what it was. Unlike jazz, the main beat in Latin was four-and, 1-2-3-BUH-BUH…BAHT. It was four-and-two, four-and-two. That would be the conga drums.

TP: So it’s quite specialized, and the rhythms have to be locked in.

SHEARING: Yes, particularly if you’re going to do it in an authentic way. Anybody can… [sings “Cucaracha”] It can be played by any dance hall band in the world. That’s not specialized.

TP: When did Armando Peraza come into your circle?

SHEARING: He was with me for about five or six years, and he was there along with McKibbon and Cal Tjader. McKibbon would be playing cowbell, Armando would be playing congas and bongos… The whole rhythm section was set up with almost no harmonic instrument.

TP: Did you ever incorporate Armando Peraza on swing tunes, or just on Latin tunes?

SHEARING: Latin tunes.

TP: You never used him to give flavor to a 4/4 tune.

SHEARING: No. I wonder even now whether he spoke more English than he thought he spoke then. He had a great sense of humor. I think he’s still with us, as far as I know.

TP: Percy Brice on traps, when did he come in? You couldn’t have had a better drummer than Denzil Best…

SHEARING: I can’t remember if Percy followed Denzil. He might have.

TP: Bill Clark played before.

SHEARING: Right. Well, Percy was a better drummer than Bill Clark. Bill had one thing, and that was… [sound of brushes] Percy would concoct actual parts to play. He’d hear an arrangement and know where the fills would come in. He was a great drummer.

TP: Again, he had the reading skills, the technical skills, and the swing. How long was he with you?

SHEARING: Three years.

TP: The final tune is a calypso, “Nothing But De Best.”

SHEARING: It’s Denzil’s tune. Denzil was very close to the West Indian feeling…

TP: So along with “Move” and “Allen’s Ailey,” that’s another piece from his lexicon. So we have “Pawn Ticket,” “It Never Entered My Mind,” “There Will Never Be Another You,” the jam, “Old Devil Moon,” and “Nothin’ But De Best.” So if not by the specific tunes, if the structure, a bop line, a ballad, a instrumental feature, a Latin tune, a Calypso…

SHEARING: What it did was to present rhythmic and harmonic variety. That’s what it did.

[-30-]

 

******

 

Liner Notes: George Shearing/Cannonball Adderley (At Newport):

“At Newport” is a consequential addition to the prolific and distinguished discographies of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and George Shearing, who play back to back and briefly join forces on the concert documented herein. The venue is the Newport Jazz Festival, then in its fourth summer, and the bands let their hair down, playing well-paced, tightly arranged, improvisationally open sets before a relaxed, enthusiastic audience under the stars.

Observers in 1957 might have found the matchup of Shearing — 38, white, English, an established mega-star — and Adderley — 28, black, southern, struggling to ascend the jazz tree — to be counter-intuitive. But in retrospect, they were complementary personalities. For one thing, they shared a manager, John Levy, the black bassist and road manager of Shearing’s first quintet, who left in 1951 to pursue a distinguished and pioneering career in personal management. More to the point, each was an instrumental virtuoso with a populist sensibility, conversant with a full timeline of jazz vocabulary, informed by the imperative to present even the most esoteric music in an unfailingly communicative manner.

One evening precisely two years earlier, Adderley had famously exploded on the scene when he sat in with bassist Oscar Pettiford before an enthralled audience of musicians and hipsters at the Cafe Bohemia in Greenwich Village. This happened months after Charlie Parker’s death, and such contemporaneous young lions as Jackie McLean and Phil Woods were on record as regarding Adderley’s style — he incorporated the harmonic and rhythmic innovations and propulsive thrust of Charlie Parker, with a big, fat Willie Smith lead alto tone, ferocious execution reminiscent of Earl Bostic, and an ability to conjure elegant melodic lines a la Benny Carter — as the next step in extending the vocabulary of the alto saxophone. Adderley grounded his narratives in the tropes of bebop, blues, and the black church, apportioned in equal measure; after the band tears through J.J. Johnson’s 1947 composition “Wee-Dot,” his patter provides a window to his thinking.

“That, of course, was a blues, which we like to play very much,” says the former high school band director. “You’ll find it obvious in our performance here this afternoon, because we feel that the blues reflects what jazz SHOULD be made of.”

Throughout their half-hour set the Adderley Brothers — Cannonball and his cornetist sibling Nat were co-leaders — manifest the trademark collective focus, instrumental prowess, soulful intelligence and insouciant precision that sealed their popularity with black audiences from the moment they convened in early 1956. Those qualities were due in no small part to the contributions of pianist Junior Mance, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Jimmy Cobb, a seasoned young rhythm section that could go primal or delicate at the drop of a hat. In particular, Chicagoan Mance uncorks some big-time solos — think Earl Hines and Albert Ammons mixed with Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk — that show us why Lester Young, Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt and Dinah Washington had made him their road pianist of choice in previous years.

The repertoire — “A Foggy Day” (an insistent medium groove, with telling key modulations), “Sermonette” (a Ray Charles-inspired bop-shuffle), “Sam’s Tune” (a train song) and “Hurricane Connie” (ingenious, warp-speed rhythm changes) — comes from “Cannonball Enroute,” “To The Ivy League With Nat,” and “Introducing Cannonball Adderley,” all recorded for Mercury-EmArcy, a label that kept the brothers in the studio, but backed their product insufficiently. Indeed, Cannonball’s bandstand optimism and ebullience flies in the face of the dire circumstances that already faced him. Owing back taxes, the brothers already were deep in debt, and would disband temporarily in the winter of 1958, when Cannonball joined forces with Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

By contrast, Shearing was at a popular peak. A blind prodigy from a working class family in London, the pianist had carved out a successful career in England before emigrating to the United States in 1947. Under the sponsorship of countryman Leonard Feather, he quickly made his bones on 52nd Street, establishing props in a popular trio with Oscar Pettiford and J.C. Heard, and sharing bills with prestigious artists ranging from Charlie Parker to Machito. Influenced in formative years by Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, and Nat Cole, and fascinated with the vocabulary of Romantic and Impressionist European music, Shearing quickly transmuted the vocabulary of bebop into his own voice.

Already a fixture in 1949, Shearing became a mega-star that year when his recording of “September In The Rain” [MGM] with a vibraphone-guitar-piano-bass-drums configuration sold 900,000 copies, imprinting the “Shearing sound” — the vibraphone played the top register of the octave, the guitarist played the bottom, and the piano navigated between those registral boundaries with block chord variations — on the collective consciousness of jazz. In 1955, he signed with Capitol Records, cementing his stature with a series of nuanced, well-promoted albums that showcased his exquisite touch and harmonic ingenuity in a range of contexts. With enviable panache and sophistication, he tackled the fiery complexities of bebop and Afro-Cuban music, intimate solo piano recitals, dialogues with singers Nat Cole, Mel Torme and Peggy Lee, and plush concerti against mellow backdrops of strings and woodwinds.

Here, Shearing’s stylistic flexibility is on full display. For his spread-out Newport audience, he eschews, with one exception, the intimate, tasteful arrangements “for very small rooms” that comprised the bulk of his work in 1957. That exception is “It Never Entered My Mind,” on which he superimposes the melody of Eric Satie’s “Gymnopedie.” Otherwise, burning is the order of the night, and the excellent band rises to the task. On “Pawn Ticket” — a worthy entrant in the Ray Bryant lexicon of catchy tunes with slick changes — Shearing unleashes his bop chops on a block chord solo. A stirring “There Will Never Be Another You” features vibraphonist Emil Richards — the multiple percussion maestro who succeeded malleters Don Elliott, Joe Roland and Cal Tjader in Shearing’s units — over sweet fills from classy trapsetter Percy Brice. Shearing learned clave from Machito, and – with idiomatic support from bassist Al McKibbon, himself a disciple of Chano Pozo with Dizzy Gillespie, and from legendary Cuban hand drummer Armando Peraza — customarily climaxed sets with idiomatic Latin flagwavers. McKibbon provides the vamp that propels “Old Devil Moon,” and Peraza puts intriguing mambo beats on “Nothing But De Best,” an engaging calypso authored by former Shearing drummer Denzil Best.

A stickler for playing charts just precisely so, Shearing required sideman to read immaculately and to improvise and express their personality when called upon to do so. “We are not usually in the habit of inviting guests up to play with the quintet, because normally we have things completely set,” he remarks before summoning the Adderleys on stage. “But we are about at this time to embark on a very special arrangement. As a matter of fact, we are going to arrange it right now.” McKibbon and Brice set the tempo, and the impromptu crew launches into “Soul Station,” a funky blues line with a Horace Silver connotation. The Adderleys soar, Richards uncorks a cogently jagged declamation, and Shearing lets it all hang out with several intense choruses of block chords, the way he might have done on a third set at Birdland following, say, Bud or Bird or Machito or the Ellington Orchestra. Catching his breath in the aftermath, he briefly sheds his unflappable stage persona, saying, “You don’t mind us enjoying ourselves for one night, do you? Whew!”

Neither Shearing nor Junior Mance can recall whether this was the only musical encounter of the two John Levy clients. But it was a special one, and both giants honored themselves in the process.

Ted Panken
Downbeat, Jazziz, WKCR

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Filed under George Shearing, Liner Notes

Raw Copy of Benny Green’s Blindfold Test from Around 2000—He’s 49 Today

It’s the 49th birthday of Benny Green, one of my favorite pianists for many years. I’m appending below the unedited complete DownBeat Blindfold Test that he did with me more than a decade ago.

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Benny Green Blindfold Test:

1.    James Weidman, “Bean and the Boys” (from ALL ABOUT TIME, Contour, 1999) (Weidman, piano; Ed Howard, bass; Marcus Baylor, drums) – (5 stars)

It sounded like Lewis Nash on drums. It wasn’t?  Wow!  Who is the drummer?  I was positive it was Lewis Nash, by the ride cymbal, the way he was comping on the snare, the way he coordinated his bass drum with his ride cymbal.  I’m actually surprised it’s not Lewis.  The song is a Coleman Hawkins melody called “Bean and The Boys,” which is based on “Lover, Come Back To Me.”  It was an original treatment with a Latin feel, and I enjoyed it.  I liked the way everyone was playing.  By the time of the last bridge, on the final melody chorus, the whole group really loosened up, and that was my favorite part of the song.  But I enjoyed the whole performance.  It felt like the three players were really comfortable with each other and trusted each other, and it was an honest performance.  I have no idea who the pianist was.  It was musical and had a good feel, but I have no idea who it was.  I’m personally not comfortable with the star system, but 5 stars.  It was an excellent performance. [AFTER] All respects to Marcus, who’s a great musician, but I thought he might have absorbed some things from Lewis.  Like, the very first bar coming out of the melody, the way he played the accent on 1 and 2 on both the ride cymbal and the bass drum, that’s like signature Lewis.  I guess that just goes to show, although I still think of Lewis (he’s just a few years older than I) as a young person, that he’s really having an influence on the current scene.  Obviously, I thought it was Lewis, and I’ve played with Lewis, so Marcus has absorbed from him.  And that’s good. It means he’s absorbing from one of the greatest of today.  I should have recognized Ed.  I’ve done a lot of playing with him.  He’s a great musician.

2.    George Cables, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” (from BY GEORGE: GEORGE CABLES PLAYS THE MUSIC OF GEORGE GERSHWIN, Contemporary, 1987) (Cables, piano; John Heard, bass; Ralph Penland, drums) – (5 stars)

I think it’s George Cables.  I love George’s playing.  I love his personality and it comes through in his playing.  He’s a very sweet and gentle soul, a very warm person, and clearly the man knows so much music and he utilizes all this knowledge just to paint a beautiful picture when he plays.  My father used to take me to see Dexter Gordon back in the mid-’70s, when George was his pianist.  We always knew George was going to be playing piano, because when
we would arrive at the venue, before the musicians came out on stage, there would be a phone book on the piano bench.  George used to use one; there probably weren’t so many adjustable benches back then.  That was a great reading of Gershwin’s melody, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” from “Porgy and Bess.”  I enjoyed the whole thing from start to finish.  don’t know who the bassist and drummer were, but it felt like everyone really worked together well.  They were very supportive of him. 5 stars. I thought it was gorgeous.  [AFTER] I’ve never had the pleasure of working with John, even though I’ve met him.  He’s a pro from way, way back, and I’ve always admired his work.  I have had the pleasure of playing with Ralph, especially quite a bit with Freddie Hubbard.  He has played with everyone who’s been alive in the course of his lifetime.  He’s worked with all of them, and it comes through in his playing. He’s a great listener, and his conception is wide open.

3.    Cedar Walton, “Latin America” (from LATIN TINGE, High Note, 2002) (Walton, piano; Cucho Martinez, bass; Ray Mantilla, percussion) (5 stars)

That was really hip.  The pianist had a beautiful touch, and by the pianistic language, it had to be one of two people, either the man whose language it is, Cedar Walton, or the man who’s the greatest practitioner of Cedar’s pianistic language, Mike LeDonne.  Ah, it’s the man himself.  Well, all respects to Mr. Walton.  Mike LeDonne has absorbed so much of his language, that one — at least this one — has to question sometimes which is which.  But it felt like the source, so if it was Michael, it would have been a great tribute to who he absorbed it from.  It’s really refreshing.  I enjoyed the instrumentation, using the congas instead of a drumset.  It’s nice sometimes to hear music played rhythmically without cymbals, like the opening credit music for the new movie “Catch Me If You Can.”  It’s nice on the ears.  Oh my gosh, Cedar is just one of the hippest ever.  The way he touches the piano is completely himself.  he has a lot of influence, as do all the masters, but also, as is the case with all the great masters of the music, all those influences serve the end of his own voice.  And when you hear him, you know who it is.  That piece was beautiful.  For many, many years, Cedar has been one of the hippest arrangers as well as pianists.  And everything he plays, when he’s improvising, when he’s comping, is an arrangement.  It paints a picture.  It tells a story.  He’s one of the finest of all time.  So tasteful, so musical.  It’s an infectious feeling.  Loved the tune.  It sounded like it could have been a standard.  Definitely 5 stars.

4.    George Shearing-Jim Hall, “Street Of Dreams” (from FIRST EDITION, Concord, 1981) (Shearing, piano; Hall, guitar) (5 stars)

I love this song, “Street of Dreams.”  It was a beautiful rendition.  A really telling moment in the performance for me was when the bassist dropped out during the guitar solo, and the pianist walked the bass line in his left hand.  Because the pianist’s time feel was so strong with that left hand, it was clearly someone who has done a lot of solo playing.  I know very few people that have that relaxed a time feeling when it comes to playing a bass line in their left hand.  So I’m going to take a wild guess at who it might have been, based on the fact that he played the bass line so well.  One of the only people I can think of who is that adept at playing a left-hand bass line is Dave McKenna. [By the way, there’s no bass player.] I love it!  See, it felt like there was a bass throughout.  There again, an incredible left hand. I’m clueless as to who it was if it wasn’t Dave McKenna, but clearly someone who’s very masterful at using their left hand for time playing.  The guitarist’s sound was very familiar to me, but I was never able to pinpoint it.  To be honest, of the guitarists who are out there today, there’s only a small handful who I’m well aware of.  So it could have been someone who’s outside of my realm of familiarity.  But of the people I know of, the one it sounded closest to was Howard Alden. 5 stars. [AFTER] Well, that explains the left hand.  Yet I didn’t recognize George by the lines he played in his right hand at all.  Beautiful!  George has one of the finest touches, and it’s been that way throughout his career.  I would have especially recognized him when it comes to playing a solo ballad.  I’m a huge fan of his ballad work.  He’s really one of my favorites when it comes to playing solo unaccompanied ballads.  Honestly, I haven’t really investigated as much of his time playing as I have listened to him playing the ballads.  And Jim’s sound has gone through several stages of evolution over the years.  To be honest, I’d probably be more familiar hearing one of his older recordings sound-wise, like “The Bridge.”  But he’s a great master of music.  I’m always thankful to hear a good melody played with a good feeling like that.

5.    Roland Hanna, “Afternoon in Paris” (from MILANO, PARIS, NEW YORK: FINDING JOHN LEWIS, Venus, 2002) (Hanna, piano; George Mraz, bass; Lewis Nash, drums) (5 stars)

If that wasn’t Lewis Nash, then I don’t know what.  And I thought it was George Mraz on bass.  If it’s Lewis Nash and George Mraz, that would suggest that, since a lot of what I heard from the piano made me think of Tommy Flanagan, and that’s a Tommy Flanagan rhythm section, it wouldn’t be that far off to think it’s him.  But there some clusters in the left hand that weren’t Tommy’s. But it sounded like someone who had something in common, either had absorbed from Tommy, listened to him a lot, or maybe a fellow Detroit pianist.  None of the other Detroit pianists that I’m aware of ring true with who it could have been.  But there are definitely some Flanaganisms in the phrasing.  But moving on, it was a great tune, a jazz standard, John Lewis’ “Afternoon In Paris.”  I especially enjoyed a lot of what Lewis was doing behind the bass solo.  He played something of Philly Joe Jones’ during the bass’ first bridge, and then during the last eight of the bass solo he was listening so closely to what the pianist was doing.  They played some nice things together.  But gosh, I don’t have a clue who the pianist was. 5 stars. [AFTER] So it was a Detroit guy!  Well, they had so much in common.  Roland Hanna’s passing is a tremendous loss.  He knew so much music, plus he got such a beautiful sound from the instrument.  I remember going to see “Sophisticated Ladies” on Broadway when Roland Hanna was playing, and the feeling and sound he got from the piano… I remember thinking, “Well, this is probably the closest I’ll ever come to hearing Duke in person.”  He so captured that spirit. The solo piano record he made at Maybeck is a real gem.

Tommy Flanagan had such a wry sense of humor.  One of the first conversations I ever had with Tommy Flanagan, I told him that I thought I heard a kinship between he and a couple of other Detroit pianists, Hank Jones and Barry Harris.  And he sort of looked at me blankly, and said, “No, I wouldn’t say there’s anything to that.”  He was pulling my leg.  He had a great sense of humor.  That was a magnificent performance.

6.    McCoy Tyner, “Blues For Fatha” (from JAZZ ROOTS, Telarc, 2000) (Tyner, piano)  (5 stars)

I’m pretty sure that was my very first pianistic hero, McCoy Tyner.  By the time I was 13, I owned every McCoy Tyner record.  He was the first pianist I heard who I really wanted to play like.  It took me years to realize you can never learn to play like anybody else.  But he’s one of the few pianists who has such a distinctive voice that, in this case, you could tell who it was before he even finished that first chorus of blues. There’s very few people you can recognize in a very few notes like that.  I want to get this recording, because it’s beautiful to hear the way he gets dynamic contrast from the piano using the pedals, and he brings so much sound, so much color.  When I started playing with Art Blakey, one thing I didn’t realize until I was on the bandstand with him was that from the outside looking in, you’re aware of all the power, which is the case with McCoy Tyner; but when you’re actually up on the bandstand who has that much depth, you realize that part of what brings the effect of the power are the dynamics at play.  It’s not that everything is big or everything is loud, but there’s a lot of shape to the music.  It’s really beautiful to hear McCoy in a solo setting, and it’s so very exposed — all the beautiful color he’s able to bring from the instrument.  Any time I’ve ever heard McCoy Tyner play, any recording, any performance, there is never the slightest air in the expression that he’s thinking about record sales or what kind of review he’s going to get, or competing with someone.  It’s such a spiritual offering from McCoy. Every note he plays, he’s playing straight from his heart, and through this honest offering, you can understand that without even knowing the human being.  He allows you to feel who he is.  And I feel that’s the greatest thing that any musician has to offer, beyond technical ability or style, is to know who you are, away from the arena of music, and then to bring that to your music, as McCoy does. 5 stars.

7.    Hank Jones, “Rockin’ In Rhythm” (from ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM, Concord, 1977) (Jones, piano; Ray Brown, bass; Jimmie Smith, drums) (5 stars)

I hope I’m right about this one.  I’m pretty sure that’s from the record with Hank Jones and Ray Brown and Jimmie Smith.  Thank God.  I wouldn’t want to get those guys wrong.  What was interesting is that’s actually a record I own, and hadn’t listened to for a while, and I was listening from a whole different perspective, rather than from the onset putting it on, knowing who I was hearing.  So it was very interesting how I gradually actually realized who it was.  I wouldn’t have been able to recognize Jimmie Smith specifically, but once I thought it was Hank and Ray, I remembered that they’d played this.  First of all, Duke Ellington’s “Rockin’ In Rhythm” is such a great song.  Now I can remember having heard it when I originally listened to the record, and at the time I appreciated the authenticity with which Hank played Duke’s harmonies on the melody.  But I swear, I was listening from a whole different place this time.  It was very interesting.  I didn’t recognize Ray until he played his bass solo, and at the time he played the bass solo… When you’ve around someone that much… For four-and-a-half years he stood 2 feet away from my left ear.  So that’s a sound and feeling that’s entered my body.  So I thought, well, if this isn’t Ray Brown… It’s like when I heard Cedar Walton earlier and thought of Mike LeDonne.  I said, “Well, the greatest practitioner of Ray’s language is John Clayton, so it’s got to be one of these two guys.”  But I still wasn’t sure until I thought about it.  Then I thought, “Man, this just reeks of Ray Brown’s DNA, so it’s got to be him.”  Then I realized what record it is.

Anyway, it’s beautiful.  Actually, the first thing that reached me about the music was the drums.  Such a beautiful and relaxed quarter-note from Jimmie Smith, when he was playing on the hi-hat, when he played the ride cymbal.  Very rare to hear that, especially today.  This recording is about 25 years old now.  Beautiful music.  Again, with Hank Jones, I didn’t recognize him at first, but the pieces started to fit together.  And the first thing that reached me that made me think of Hank was his left hand — the voicings and the rhythmic placement, and the way he actually connects one chord to the next.  Hank is one of the greatest masters of the pedals in history, and he uses those pedals to get the widest palette of sound of different colors from the instrument I’ve ever heard, and also just to make connections smoothly.  In fact, to me, that’s what technique is, moreso than the ability to play fast.  Technique is the ability to play smoothly.  And Hank’s the greatest, as Oscar Peterson would attest. 5 stars.

8.    Donald Brown, “The Sequel” (from SEND ONE YOUR LOVE, Muse, 1992) (Brown, piano; Charnett Moffett, b; Louis Hayes, drums; Mulgrew Miller, composer) (5 stars)

The melody was so beautiful.  You know something that made this really pleasurable to listen to for me was the way the three musicians worked together.  It’s so refreshing to hear the pianist and drummer were not afraid to take a lot of chances.  The bassist supported them.  The bassist had their back all throughout.  So there were a lot of times when the time feel could have gone haywire potentially if the bassist had stopped supporting them.  But he didn’t.  He had their back throughout.  So it was really nice to hear the pianist and drummer really going for things, and you had the sense that they didn’t necessarily even know where it was going to lead, but they were playing as they felt in the moment, and that made the performance a joy to hear.  It felt like it was a bit of an adventure.  The melody seemed rather familiar, but I don’t know specifically what it was.  I’ve heard the melody before.  Sounds like a pianist could have written it, because of the orchestral nature.  The only person who would come to mind as a composer…it has a quality that reminds me of Ahmad Jamal, but I don’t know who actually wrote it. Help me out.  Oh, it’s Mulgrew’s song.  I didn’t recognize any of the players, but I enjoyed them. 5 stars.

9.    Herbie Hancock, “Embraceable You” (from GERSHWIN’S WORLD, Verve, 1998) (Hancock, piano)

Definitely Herbie.  That’s another one of the few pianists who has such a distinctive voice.  This is probably from the Gershwin album.  “Embraceable You.”  5 stars.  Beautiful song.  Herbie Hancock is someone I have to be very selective about going to hear in live performance, because if I have a show coming up in close proximity, he can give me nightmares.  What he does is so beautiful, yet for a pianist, it can be almost overwhelming to experience that in person — the expansiveness of Herbie’s imagination and just the freedom and abandon that he brings to his genius.  He puts so much thought and soul into every note he plays.  He’s a true inspiration to all of us.  He’s one of those rare individuals who comes along and opens music up for all the generations to come.  I’m very grateful for what he’s done for music.  It’s a rare treat to hear a solo piano performance from Herbie.  Boy, if I had any say in the matter, I’d love to hear him record an entire solo album sometime in the future, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that wish.  It would be so beautiful to listen to and learn from for all time.  He’s one of the geniuses in our midst.  We’ve lost so many great masters in the past few years, and it’s wonderful that we have Herbie Hancock with us.

10.    Teddy Wilson, “My Heart Stood Still” (from THREE LITTLE WORDS, Black & Blue, 1976) (Wilson, piano; Milt Hinton, bass; Oliver Jackson, drums) (5 stars)

That was beautiful!  I love that song, “My Heart Stood Still.”  I could tell it was an old-timer right off the bat, because clearly the pianist knew the melody so well.  He sounded like someone who grew up with the song, not someone who learned it after the fact; someone who grew up with the song as a pop tune during that generation.  Another way I could tell it was an older player is I felt so much life and humor in the performance.  Clearly, this is someone who has done a lot of living.  I’m not sure who it was.  The only element of vocabulary that I recognized was that it sounded like someone who enjoyed Teddy Wilson. But outside of that, I definitely don’t know who it was. The bass and drummer are great. The drummer is a master; he’s very responsible with the time at that bright tempo.  5 stars. [AFTER] Okay!  Well, I would say Teddy Wilson enjoys Teddy Wilson.  This must have been a later performance.  Teddy’s one of my favorites, but I haven’t listened to a lot of his later work.  I’ve mostly heard his earlier recordings.  He’s one of the people that really brought what had come before his generation pianistically into a more contemporary kind of focus through his use of subtlety and touch and pedaling.  Both Teddy Wilson and Nat Cole were largely influenced by Earl Fatha Hines, but each took that influence and personalized it, and became two of the formative voices of modern piano.  All the greats we know today, people like Hank Jones and Oscar Peterson, owe a great deal to Teddy Wilson along with Nat Cole and Art Tatum, for laying the foundations of modern jazz piano.

11.    Paul Bley, “Ida Lupino” (from PLAYS CARLA BLEY, Steeplechase, 1991) (Bley, piano; Marc Johnson, bass; Jeff Williams, drums; Carla Bley, composer) – (5 stars)

I enjoyed that.  That was a different kind of painting!  That’s a very pretty melody.  I’ve heard it before.  Is it a pop song? From the simplicity of the melody, it sounded like something that would have words to it — like it was a poem.  Gosh, I don’t know who wrote it.  “Ida Lupino”?   I’ve heard it before.  I don’t know who the musicians were.  The drummer had the most familiar sound of the three musicians.  But they worked together so well, I wonder how much discussion there was about an approach or direction to the song, or if they just let it happen.  There was this mood, this dark feeling from the very beginning, and they really stayed with it.  At first, it was a beautiful sort of suggestion of a sort of undefined mood.  But they stayed with that train of thought and let the idea sort of blossom throughout the whole performance. 5 stars because it was an honest performance. By “honest” I mean that I felt the humanity of the musicians coming through. It was lovely.

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Filed under Benny Green, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Piano, Uncategorized