George Shearing: Like Fine Wine

Robert R. Calder

George Shearing

Like Fine Wine

Label: Mack Avenue
US Release Date: 2004-06-15
UK Release Date: 2004-08-09

The last George Shearing CD I acquired was cut-price and I suppose planned as a minor deception, with relatively modern photographs of Shearing and the late Stephane Grappelli. Together, it said they were, and so they were: when Shearing was pianist in the band Grappelli ran in wartime exile in London. That now 60-year-old music holds up well, and in fact I preferred the very young Shearing's impeccably swinging stride piano to my immediately previous Shearing acquisition, the so-called "Dixieland" set on the Concord label. On that the pianist had been allowed to arrange for a group of musicians who frankly could have sounded a lot better, allowed the exercise of proven talents for improvisation and spontaneity.

Shearing has too often tried too hard to please people. His sense of humour and human limitations is at the mercy of a desire to tell people not excessively patient that they should moderate their musical demands. He does what he wants and can in every sense afford to smile at criticisms. It's impossible not to esteem the real virtues of his music, but you may not be enthusiastic about the ways of balancing them, which have endeared him to a large public for a long time.

Some people found Shearing most interesting when he started playing not within that subtle blend of piano, vibes, guitar, bass, and drums that had long been famous since "Lullaby of Birdland" -- a deep groove some thought a rut -- but in duo with the virtuoso bassist Brian Torff. He has never since early youth gone overboard like the late Danny Thompson, a less thoroughly schooled and comprehensively talented virtuoso who emigrated to New York later than Shearing and had himself billed in competition, "ENGLAND'S OTHER BLIND PIANIST". Less funny was his wisecrack that he had returned from NYC to London because he was tired of his guide dog being stolen on the subway, Most inspiring of all were his exuberant live recordings on the Hep label with the American in London Spike Robinson. He had the same slightly crazy sense of humour as Shearing, without being disabled by Shearing's caution.

Less caution than Shearing shows on the present set is easy. Neil Swainson is a prodigiously talented bass virtuoso, and the other member of this piano-bass-guitar trio, Reg Schwager, is the very model of a Shearing professional.

Shearing's famous quintet was founded on his very considerable harmonic knowledge, picking up on a great deal that had happened hitherto in jazz. He unpicked the locked-hands devices Milt Buckner applied to the art of swinging, and not limited by Buckner's tiny hands he presented a more sophisticated version. I've heard Dick Hyman give an account of the history of jazz piano lauding Shearing with no mention of Buckner, and heard Shearing name Buckner very specifically as author of the style Shearing refined and popularised. Presumably he also learned from young Errol Garner -- Jaki Byard recorded pastiches parodying and outplaying both!

Shearing understood the bebop revolution in harmonic awareness no bother, but his oddest achievement was a vocal version (sung I think by Peggy Lee) that took "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" through a middle section that was straight Bach. Everyone has a right to be let off with harmless involuntary surrealism.

His almost notorious quintet developed ensemble-playing as an exposition of voicings, Shearing's harmonic acuteness planning performances in which the lead shifted variously from one player to another -- as happens between the three men on the present set. The quintet's performances were influential beyond even its own merits, demonstrating to other pianists, instrumentalists and ensembles possibilities that had further and very different developments from what Shearing followed up. Shearing had a sound, and a popularity such that lots of people heard him. He was a technical innovator who didn't however aim at anything new or radical on the surface, who didn't need to cultivate among listeners the taste by which his art would be appreciated (adapting a suitably starchy phrase of T.S. Eliot's). He was a pop star, probably rather too conscious of that status, though he worked harder and knew more than most. A recent short take on the present site concerned with Ray Conniff can be recommended for its account of Shearing's major public and his big affiliation outside jazz.

Perhaps until his tours with Brian Torff many people didn't realise quite how extremely technically accomplished a pianist Shearing always was. He long had too much taste to exhibit that very publicly.

It's probably notable that in taking the chair in a major British jazz record show some years ago, Shearing startled many the regular listener by favouring intricately organised hard-to-play "easy listening". The excessively socialised media and middlebrow compulsion went deep in a man who'd been "Britain's King of Boogie-Woogie" during the 1940 craze too! He's more ashamed of having recorded "Squeezin' the Blues" on accordion with Leonard Feather's piano accompaniment. Feather was an uncommonly good blues pianist, Shearing a master at any level of touch but as a pianist for decades now he's been showy in expression of rather refinement than deeper values.

The present CD's notes perfectly identify the trio's ambition as the creation of a "sound" akin to that of the quintet of indeed fifty years earlier. There is the notes' silly blooper of saying that on arrival in America from London he succeeded Errol Garner as "bassist" (sic!) in an Oscar Pettiford Trio. He had to be a very good pianist to join Pettiford, in 1950 the greatest living jazz bassist. Pettiford's tune "Tricotism" is misnamed here (tricotism is knitting!) but Shearing can't be blamed since he's been blind since birth. He certainly relished the challenge of turning "Tricotism" and indeed Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and some key 1940s jazz tunes into this recent trio's "sound". He seems always to have known exactly what he wanted, never to have been either unmusical or short of a public or actually outwith the jazz tradition. From the bossa nova of "Giant Steps" through the Wallerisms of "Tricotism" -- and the Bachian opening Artie Shaw's "Moon Ray" -- to the bebop of "Moose the Mooche" (with Schwager's guitar and Swainson's bass well-featured and beautifully accompanied), Shearing's successful pursuit of perfection continues, relaxed and subdued to an extent which reserves this performance for listeners interested in something consistently quiet as well as quietly consistent.

He was probably 84 when this set was laid down, though the sumptuous folder suggests 85. Giving the studio dates as October 27 and 28, 2004, the implication is that this CD will have been issued before it was recorded. This would be a first for even Shearing, I suppose! I've certainly never had so advanced a review copy before! More exciting ones fairly often, though!

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