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Back To Birdland is aptly named. The man most closely associated with the club returned, not to the original Birdland on Broadway, but to the newly reconstituted club on 44th Street. And George Shearingwhose mastery of the piano gained heightened appreciation after he left his might-as-well-be-patented quintet format for vibrant trios, memorable vocal partnerships, exceptional duos with Brian Torff and one-of-a-kind work with Mel Tormé returned in the year 2000, almost a half century later, to the same style that gained him celebrity.
This time, though, vibraphonist Don Thompson duplicates the top notes and guitarist Reg Schwager plays the low notes of Shearing's locked-hand chords as he glides gracefully through tunes like "Speak Low" or "That Sunday That Summer." Throughout the fifties, Shearing gave employment to a succession of vibists, starting with Margie Hyams, and including Gary Burton, Buddy Montgomery, Cal Tjader and Emil Richards among many others. Shearing's success encouraged similar groups like Martin Denny's, even though none could match Shearing's musicianship and comfort in such a configuration.
On Back To Birdland, Shearing advances into challenging territory after reminding his audience of the sound that he created. Whether playing classics like Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee," Lee Konitz' "Subconscious Lee" or Clifford Brown's "Joy Spring," Shearing remains the epitome of exquisite taste and firm control, even as the tunes break out into spirited solos or into the outrageous quotes of which Shearing is fond.
Case in point. Shearing introduces the song that the audience had awaited all evening: "I've been arguably credited with having written some 300 songs, 299 of which enjoyed a rather bumpy ride from relative obscurity to total oblivion. Here's the other one." A rollicking introduction, inducing claps and sighs, leads into "Satin Doll" and laughter when the audience realizes that it has been teased. Then the "real one," "Lullaby Of Birdland," proceeds, Shearing's humor and enjoyment in front of an audience intact.
A musical retrospective of the style that sprung Shearing from relative obscurity to widespread acclaim after moving to the United States, Back To Birdland could have been done with sentiment. Instead, it introduces yet another generation to the unmistakable, unforgettable and still-bright George Shearing sound that will continue to live for many more generations.
Track Listing: Fly Me To The Moon, Drop Me Off In Harlem, Sunday Monday Or Always, Speak Low, Joy Spring, That Sunday That Summer, Donna Lee, Just Imagine, High On A Windy Hill, Subconscious Lee, Lullaby Of Birdland, Loot To Boot
Personnel: George Shearing, piano; Don Thompson, vibes; Reg Schwager, guitar; Neil Swainson, bass; Dennis Mackrel, drums