10 Tracks I Can't Do Without

10 George Shearing Tracks I Can’t Do Without – By Nick Tomalin

As he looks forward to his “Shades of Shearing” show at Ronnie Scott’s on Sunday 27 November (link below), Nick Tomalin gives us the ten tracks by Battersea-born pianist George Shearing that he can’t do without. Nick writes:

George Shearing in 1959. By Associated Booking Corporation. Photographer: James Kriegsmann. Public domain

I was lucky enough to meet George Shearing in 1993 when I was a student on the postgraduate jazz course at the Guildhall School of Music. The South Bank Show were producing a programme about George’s life and contacted the Guildhall to see whether they would be interested in hosting a televised masterclass with George teaching some of the piano students. Although the masterclass was a great experience, at the time I was deep into my Keith Jarrett phase and had only heard a few of George’s more commercial recordings. Somehow, I didn’t feel much of a connection with Shearing’s music, which I felt was a bit bland, commercial and perhaps even a little ‘cheesy’. However, my meeting with him inspired me to listen again to his music, and the more I listened, the more I realised there was much more to it than I first acknowledged. Alongside the smooth strings and lush woodwind sections there was subtlety and depth, not to mention a real jazz sensibility. 

George was born in Battersea, the youngest of nine children. Blind from birth he must have had a pretty tough working-class upbringing, with his father delivering coal and his mother cleaning trains for a living. His first formal piano lessons were at the Linden Lodge School for the Blind, and it seems George was something of a prodigy as he was offered various scholarships to continue his musical education. In true jazz style though, young George instead got a job playing piano for “25 bob a week” at The Masons Arms in Battersea (which still exists). He continued working in local bands including The Ambrose Octet and Claude Bampton’s Blind Orchestra, and around this time met and befriended Leonard Feather. By his own account, his playing at this point was very influenced by Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller. He first visited America in 1946 for a three-month holiday and decided to move there permanently in 1947. 

He arrived in America at the height of the bebop boom, and one of his first gigs was playing at the Hickory House in NYC with bassist Oscar Pettiford. He also played with clarinettist Buddy de Franco, and in 1949 put together his first quintet with Marjorie Hyams on vibes and Chuck Wayne on guitar. 

  1. September in the Rain 

This is where it all really starts for George. This 1949 recording of the Harry Warren standard for MGM became his first big hit, selling over 900,000 copies. The head is played in the famous ‘Shearing Style’ with Marjorie and Chuck playing the melody an octave apart and George playing block chords behind them. It’s interesting that even at this early stage George was combining radio-friendly melodicism with full-blooded bebop. In the bridge during the head George plays a blistering passage of sustained 16th notes, and his extended solo shows he’s been listening to Powell and Parker, combining double time sections with bop vocabulary. During the second chorus he demonstrates the ‘locked hands’ style which he’d developed from Milt Buckner by way of Glen Miller, and plays some technically demanding double-time passages using this technique. For a big commercial hit, September in the Rain smuggles in some pretty uncompromising jazz. 

 2. Conception 

Widely regarded as one of the best original bebop tunes ever written, this piece also ranks with Giant Steps as one of the most challenging tunes to improvise on, both because of the speed of the harmonic rhythm and the tricky modulations. George first recorded it in 1949 with his quintet, and the band breeze through it, negotiating the corners with ease. There is a suggestion that Conception was actually written by Bud Powell, but no-one really takes this seriously. 

3. Lullaby of Birdland 

George’s best-known tune, written for Morris Levy, the owner of Birdland, as the theme music for a radio show broadcast from the club. Based on the standard Love Me or Leave Me, George first recorded it in 1952 with Joe Roland on vibes and Dick Garcia on guitar. Taken at a brisk pace, Shearing plays the head in unison with Roland and Garcia and then takes a beautiful melodic solo, again switching to block chords in the bridge. 

4. Cuban Fantasy 

In the mid 1950s there was a Mambo craze in New York with the dance becoming very popular in dancehalls. George began incorporating Cuban music into his repertoire and was at the forefront of blending the new Mambo style with jazz – continuing on from Dizzy Gillespie’s experiments with Afro-Cuban music in the late 1940s. In 1955 he had a new quintet featuring Toots Thielemans on guitar and Johnny Rae on vibes and recorded the album “The Shearing Spell”. The album contained two Mambo-influenced tracks, an arrangement of Out of This World and the Ray Bryant tune Cuban Fantasy which also features Armando Peraza on congas. The piece begins with a swung unison theme, followed by a piano break leading to a Mambo section where George solos using both block chords and unison lines. The block chord style works very well within the Mambo context, being quite similar to two-handed techniques used by a lot of Cuban players.  

 5. Darn That Dream 

By the sixties Shearing had become part of the jazz establishment, releasing a steady stream of commercially successful albums. He interspersed these with more jazz-focused releases, such as this 1961 meeting with The Montgomery Brothers from which this unusually upbeat version of Darn That Dream comes. George and Buddy play the head in unison while Wes plays a countermelody. After Monk’s bass solo the band play a unison ‘shout’ chorus which was often a feature of his quintet arrangements. 

6. What Is This Thing Called Love 

This track comes from the great 1962 album “Jazz Moments” which teamed George up with Ahmad Jamal’s rhythm section of Israel Crosby on bass and Vernel Fournier on drums. Over the A section Fournier plays a ‘Poinciana’ type groove in 7/4 which alternates with swing in the bridge. George takes a lightly swinging solo and during ‘fours’ with the drums plays a sort of inverted version of the ‘Hot House’ theme. It’s a pity he didn’t record more with this line-up. 

7. Love Is Just Around The Corner 

Originally from a live concert in Santa Monica in 1963 featuring a twenty-year-old Gary Burton on vibes and Fournier again on drums. The arrangement was first recorded on the “Shearing in Hi Fi” album of 1956 and it’s really great to hear the band stretch out, with everyone contributing inspired extended solos. Shearing again makes great use of backing riffs behind the solos, and ‘shout’ choruses to build the excitement. 

 8. Tricotism 

In 1973 Shearing joined the German record label MPS and recorded a couple of albums with a trio consisting of the Danish bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and Irish guitarist Louis Stewart. This track is from their first album together called “Windows”. The Oscar Pettiford tune is played in unison by the trio, before Stewart launches into a swinging solo followed by Pederson and Shearing, who sounds inspired in this company. 

9. Easy To Love 

Throughout his career George would occasionally release solo piano albums beginning with “The Shearing Piano” in 1957. A skilled classical player, George would often find musical connections between classical pieces and jazz standards and incorporate these into his performances. In 1985 he released the solo album “Grand Piano” on the Concord label and on this treatment of Easy to Love combines a Teddy Wilson lightness with a Bud Powell harmonic complexity to great effect. 

10. Moose The Mooche 

In 2004 George released what would be his last studio album. “Like Fine Wine” featured long-time collaborator Neil Swainson on bass and young Canadian guitarist Reg Schwager. On Parker’s Moose the Mooche George revisits his bebop roots. After a unison head, Schwager and Swainson solo, followed by a couple of choruses from George. Now in his 85th year, George’s technique is maybe not quite as crisp, but the light touch and effortless melodicism are still very present.

LINKS: ‘Shades of Shearing’ lunchtime gig at Ronnie’s booking info

Nick Tomalin’s website

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