Album review

Erroll Garner – ‘Symphony Hall Concert’ (from 1959)

Erroll Garner – Symphony Hall Concert

(Mack Avenue/Octave Music. Recorded live 17 January 1959 at Symphony Hall, Boston, Ma., U.S.A. Album review by Len Weinreich)

Have you ever dreamed that you’re standing on a fully-lit stage in front of packed house, ignorant of the lines you should be uttering or even the name of the play you’re in? If so, sympathise with Eddie Calhoun, master bass player, who stood spring-loaded night after night on major concert platforms concentrating intently on the leader’s fanciful rococo musical introduction, seeking his starting cue, totally unaware of the title, tempo or even the key of the piece about to be played.

That’s because, at performances, Erroll Garner would precede each selection with a florid intro, often a series of free-flowing phrases and themes bearing scant relationship to the song that followed. The loyal Calhoun would stand by, sensitive ears at the alert to catch a chord or rhythmic figure suggesting his next move. Perhaps it was only an on-stage joust between pianist and bassist but, once Garner shifted gear and plunged into the melody, the game turned serious and Calhoun and Kelly Martin switched into unstinting support mode. Nerve wracking, maybe. Rewarding, certainly (audiences, equally bewildered, applauded the instant they recognised the tune).

Erroll Garner was a dazzling musical prodigy born 100 years ago this year in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, heart of the U.S. steel industry. But it also produced a far more enduring product: stellar jazz pianists. Both Earl Hines and Mary Lou Williams were Pittsburghers. Two of Garner’s fellow school mates were Billy Strayhorn and Ahmad Jamal. At the age of three, Garner, equipped with musical ears and memory little short of miraculous, replicated on the piano the lessons his elder siblings had been taught by their piano teacher.

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Blessed with the uncanny ability to play tempi and rhythms independently with each hand, any song subjected to his treatment was immediately marked with his idiosyncratic stamp. And it would be inimitable. In sophisticated watering holes around the world, tuxedoed cocktail pianists plaited their fingers trying to parrot his trademark style. They all failed. His blend of excitement, orchestral approach, humour, originality, chops, time and merciless swing was unique. A Garner performance overflows with added joy.

And certainly, no-one ever got near Garner’s highly defined sense of drama. He loved contrasts: light, shade, tension, release. “I get ideas from everything,” he said. “A big colour, the sound of water, or a flash of something cool. Playing is like life. Either you feel it or you don’t”. He delivered concentrated passion: on ballads he’d spin a romantic sequence swirling with impressionistic foreplay and arabesques before changing gear and sashaying into an ecstatic measured strut that bordered on the erotic. On more up-tempo pieces, he’d beat an exit from a sturm und drang tangle of thunderous chords by plummeting into a breakneck bobsleigh single note run that made the audience gasp in delight.

To emphasise her client’s dramatic qualities, Martha Glaser, his loyal and astute manager, sought the broadest possible stages, cutting out club dates and ruling that he appear only at major concert halls (even his Manhattan apartment was in the Carnegie Hall building). Glaser was wise: every concert was sold out. This 1959 album was recorded live in Boston’s august Symphony Hall, home to the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. Not bad for a self-taught piano player who never learned to read music.

Listen how he adds joy to George and Ira Gershwin’s A Foggy Day and But Not For Me, Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin’s I Can’t Get Started, his own Dreamy, Misty and Moments Delight, Rodgers and Hart’s Lover and Taylor and Emmanuel’s Bernie’s Tune. Garner closes with a short burst of Erroll’s Theme and we trust that Calhoun wasn’t caught unawares.

The concert was presented by old Bostonian George Wein whom I will always remember as an all-round jazz mensch, Bordeaux connoisseur, fascinating raconteur and generous host. R.I.P. George.

LINK: Symphony Hall Concert on Mack Avenue

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