Concert by the Sea was jazz pianist Erroll Garner’s most widely-known and widely-praised record of his 30-year career in the music business. Its beginnings though are far more humbling than its current status would suggest. When Garner and his trio of bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Denzil DaCosta Best arrived at a converted music hall on a military base in Carmel, California in 1955, no one liked the acoustics and the house piano wasn’t in tune. Columbia abandoned plans to record and release an album from the show. The only reason Concert by the Sea exists is because Garner’s manager accidentally spotted an amateur tape recorder rolling backstage. When Columbia heard this tape, they agreed to release the record which has since gone on to enjoy a level of critical and commercial acclaim that few jazz records enjoy anymore. Sixty years on, Sony offshoot Legacy Recordings is giving us The Complete Concert by the Sea, puffing the content out to twice the size of the original record. So even if you were one of those jazz cats that became familiar with every keystroke of Concert by the Sea over the past 60 years, there are still eleven brand new songs to hear in addition to a total of 17 minutes worth of Jimmy Lyons stage banter and an after concert interview with Garner and his band.
The entire unedited concert is spread over two CDs. When you glance at the order of these 22 songs (including the bafflingly brief closing number “Erroll’s Theme”) you see just how jumbled the original edited record was. It’s as if whoever sequenced the first Concert by the Sea made their choices via dart-throwing. In some ways it’s obvious why some tunes made the cut and others did not. After Garner’s ornamental introduction to “The Nearness of You”, a few select members of the crowd register their approval with applause only to find that not everyone is joining in with them. Likely embarrassed, they stop. You can’t really edit out a thing like that. Someone, supposedly Garner himself, is enjoying a good amount of moaning alongside the music on “Bernie’s Tune”, a quirk that polarizes jazz listeners to this very day (see: most quiet albums by Keith Jarrett). And when you are trimming a 101-minute concert down to one vinyl disc, lengthy songs become a factor which could explain why the beautifully complicated ballad “Laura” or the hard-swinging cover of “Caravan” didn’t get included either. The first run of the album did enjoy an Erroll Garner original, even if it wasn’t “Misty”. It was “Mambo Carmel”, a composition written especially for the concert. But no one would have known that since Garner never spoke to the audience between numbers. It’s not until the end when announcer Jimmy Lyons asks Garner to speak into the microphone. The late, great pianist describes his voice as “worser than Louis Armstrong”, a gimmick that survived the original record’s editing.
Speaking of which, there is a Jimmy Lyons introduction to the start of each disc, suggesting that the evening was broken into two sets. Lyons uses the second introduction, which is a whole two minutes longer than the first, to promote Garner’s records Solitaire, Music for Dancing, and the Woody Herman record Music for Tired Lovers, the last of which gets quite a rise out of the audience. The “Post Concert Interview” is a fourteen minute track where Will Thornbury interviews Garner, Calhoun, and Best one at a time for what appears to be a radio to be broadcast at a later date. A word that Thornbury keeps bringing up again and again when talking with Garner and talking about the music he plays is “happy”. Even when Thornbury is running out of ways in which to phrase questions, he leans on the word “happy” as if it were intrinsically understood. This is not unusual when applied to just Erroll Garner but remains unusual for jazz music overall. The two sides of the jazz coin, America’s classical vs. the blues, have roots in things cerebral or sorrowful—at least that how it looks these days. But Erroll Garner seized a moment in time when jazz music could be used to gleefully entertain. Even though he could sit down at a piano and produce just as many notes as his hard bop contemporaries like Charlie Parker, Garner was all about putting a happy face on the music. The placing of the interview track is odd, though. You see, if you want to hear the original record as it was edited and released in 1955, that’s what the set’s third disc is for. But the interview track is placed at the end of this third disc when it probably would have made more sense to put it on the end of the second disc, since the first two discs are the ones containing the exclusive material.
What I get out of these spoken word tracks are the vernacular that you just don’t hear anymore unless someone is trying to be sarcastic. “With the great glow of the assumption that you’re all going to be thrilled right out of your shoes tonight…” “Eddie, we sure appreciate a bass like this because you really played the dickens out of this thing…” Antiquated and quaint, sure, but also the stuff of time capsules on which you can’t place a value. The Erroll Garner trio managed to impress an audience and an entire generation of jazz listeners with just one show. With The Complete Concert by the Sea, Legacy is allowing the whole event to happen yet again.
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