Erroll Garner: 1953 (2005)

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Erroll Garner: 1953
Listening to an Erroll Garner record is, for me, a little like the first time I drank mezcal, a distilled liquor made from the agave plant—with a worm in the bottle—in Oaxaca, Mexico. An initial sharp and soaring euphoria, unique among the alcoholic beverages, immediately followed by an equally sharp, crushing headache accompanied by nausea. The whole vertiginous process of substance abuse telescoped into a very few minutes' time.

So it is with most of the tracks on 1953, a new installment in the Classics Chronological series of Erroll Garner's complete discography. First, an intoxicating amazement with the rhythmic mastery, a witty take on a tune you love—"Lullaby of Birdland," "Cheek to Cheek," "Avalon"—dizzying, practically hilarious arpeggios and idiosyncratic improvisation throughout. Why doesn't all jazz sound this good?

And then—well before the number is over—you find yourself saying, "Really, old man, don't you think this has gone on long enough?" Shortly thereafter, the see-sawing back-and-forth between an insistent pounding of one chorus, alternating with swishy, muted statements of the theme in the next, begins to resemble the pitiless rising and falling of a stormy steel-grey sea.

This ability to provoke both elation and revulsion in the span of a few minutes (as opposed to only one or the other) is probably unique in the annals of jazz. I'm sure that others won't have quite as strong a reaction as I do (and maybe they can hold their liquor better, too). But the euphoria keeps one coming back for more; and like an excellent mezcal, Garner's music bears repeated savouring, in small, responsible doses. If you accept this diagnosis, then the very idea of the Classics complete recordings enterprise is, well, not for everyone. Having been hooked, I do not want to imagine living without the swooping "Sweet Sue—Just You" on 1953, but I'm not sure how many Garner discs to put in the library.

You might opt instead for the celebrated Concert by the Sea; after all, more of your friends are likely to own it as well, and this confers an added value on the product beyond its intrinsic musical quality. (This is what economists call "network externalities": the value to an individual of a good with such externalities increases the larger the number of other people consuming it, too. You may be able to think of other concert records whose value—unlike that of Concert by the Sea—stems entirely from king-sized network externalities and not at all from the content of the recording: Frampton Comes Alive?)

1953 features parts of two sessions by Garner with bassist Wyatt Ruther and drummer Fats Heard from February and March of the title year. Given Garner's relentlessly propulsive style, the accompaniment is largely redundant, but tasteful neverthless.

Curious readers can learn more about these recordings in AAJ's Ask Ken column.

Track Listing: Caravan; Lullaby of Birdland; Cheek to Cheek; Once in a While; Will You Still Be Mine?; Blue Ecstacy; Avalon; Lullaby in Rhythm; St. Louis Blues; My Ideal; Stompin' at the Savoy; Sweet Sue - Just You; Easy to Love; Mean to Me; I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm; Love for Sale.

Personnel: Erroll Garner: piano; Wyatt Ruther: bass; Fats Heard: drums.

Record Label: Classics

Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream


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