by Armand Lewis
During much of the twentieth century, many jazz musicians had little formal training. There may have been basic lessons as children, but often by high school age, they were being taught informally by older musicians. Occasionally, a young prodigy would emerge with hardly any formal training — or even the ability to read music — but whose skills would simply astonish listeners around the world.
Likely the most famous such talent was Erroll Garner. As a young child, Garner could instantly reproduce the music being taught his older siblings after just hearing the lesson from the next room. Reportedly, Garner could reproduce any tune after hearing it just once. Basically self-taught by the age of seven he was regularly playing on the local radio station. By age eleven, he was booked to play on riverboats and by his early twenties would record with Charlie Parker in New York.
Though not specifically a modernist, Garner’s personal style would straddle the worlds of both swing and be-bop with a nod to the earlier stride style pianists such as James P. Johnson. As such, he was able to effectively play in any style that a tune (or his own imagination) called for.
Garner’s albums often crossed over from jazz audiences to the wider pop market, making him something of a household name in the 1950s and ‘60s. In 1959, he was the first jazz musician to play a solo concert at Carnegie Hall, which sold out with an estimated 7,000 additional people unable to get in.
Oddly enough, in the years since Garner’s death in 1977, Garner’s recordings and reputation have been somewhat forgotten. This is starting to change with Sony/Legacy’s release last year of an expanded edition of Garner’s masterpiece The Complete Concert By The Sea which features unedited as well as unheard performances from that famous concert.
Not to neglect Garner’s studio recordings, Sony Legacy has now released Erroll Garner – Ready Take One (Sony/Legacy 536331); the first in what promises to be multiple sets of unreleased studio recordings. Currently out on CD, a vinyl LP edition is scheduled for release later this year.
The set includes six previously unreleased Garner compositions starting off with “High Wire” which rocks with a Latin-tinged undercurrent that propels Garner forward with literally wild exuberance. Likewise “Wild Music” which starts off deceptively contemplative, but resolves into a wild ride that could have come off of a James Bond movie.
Among the standards presented, Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” and “Satin Doll” stand out along with Garner’s own classic “Misty.” A haunting ballad first recorded in 1955, “Misty” has been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald to Etta James and Lloyd Price, and — yes — it is the “Misty” in the title of the Clint Eastwood film Play ‘Misty’ for Me.
Throughout all the tracks on this album (culled from three different sessions between 1967 and 1971), Garner’s trademark growl can be heard behind much of the music — indicating how much he enjoyed playing. His infectious energy and sheer joy is something to hear — along with the studio chatter included between many of the takes. As Garner’s producer/manager Martha Glaser says at the end of “Chase Me”: “You got it that time!”
Armand Lewis buys and sells rare Jazz LPs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org