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Erroll Garner: The Octave Remastered Series: Part 1

Peter Hoetjes By

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Most people's appreciation for Erroll Garner begins and ends with Concert By The Sea (Columbia, 1955), the pianist's career-defining performance for an audience of U.S. Infantrymen at the Sunset School in Carmel, California, just ten minutes away from the filming location of Clint Eastwood's jazz-tinged thriller featuring "Misty," his most famous composition. The sound of Garner's piano is arguably the most distinctive one in the instrument's history. While many musicians' influences are readily identified as derivative of trailblazers such as Thelonius Monk or McCoy Tyner, there isn't really anyone who plays like quite like him. Somehow, adopting his mannerisms is seen as imitating rather than incorporating, a compelling argument as to how truly singular his particular brand of music was. At the height of his popularity, he managed to record the most successful jazz album of the time, and bring the genre from smoke-filled, underground jazz clubs to concert halls all over the world. Yet despite the accolades he enjoyed during his lifetime, today his music belongs largely to a niche market.

In 1959, Garner and his manager, Martha Glaser, struck an unprecedented blow for artist's rights by successfully suing Columbia Records to cease their release of music he didn't approve of. The pianist took a three-year hiatus, using his time and prosperity to have a hand in the birth of Octave Music, for whom he would record a dozen albums over the remaining sixteen years of his life. When Glaser died in 2014, the entirety of Garner's estate fell into the hands of a new executor, who used the opportunity to create The Erroll Garner Jazz Project. Since then, the group has released multiple high quality remastered albums by the famed musician to wide critical acclaim.

The Octave Remastered Series will see all twelve of the albums he recorded for the label brought to the 21st century with state of the art technology. Each will include a single unreleased bonus track, eight of which are never before heard original compositions. Following the batch of four which kick the series off in September 2019, a new album will be issued by Mack Avenue Records every month leading up to the pianist's centennial celebration in June of 2020.

Erroll Garner was a consistent performer throughout his career, appearing on a plethora of albums and penning over two hundred compositions. With that in mind, the folks at The Erroll Garner Jazz Project look to revitalize interest in his legacy, expanding modern audiences awareness of him away from Concert By The Sea and "Misty," to the wealth of music he created, so much of which the world has yet to discover.

The month of September 2019 saw the re-release of the following:

Erroll Garner
Dreamstreet
Mack Avenue Records
1961

If there is an argument to be made in favor of artists of any sort having unrestricted freedom over their creative endeavors, Dreamstreet certainly makes it stronger. As prolific as he was, three years must have felt like an eternity to Erroll Garner, who rarely spent significant time away from the studio. Once his legal battle with Columbia was finished, however, it took that long to establish Octave Music, and find a distributor with whom he and his manager could come to terms. Lacking much of any oversight, the pianist took his time putting together this album, and it shows.

Dreamstreet is a very balanced effort, wearing the signs that Garner and his team painstakingly labored over even the smallest nuances involved. The opening track is a peppy take on Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things," which is immediately followed by an unapologetically romantic interpretation of "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You." Most of the songs situated in the midst of the album are enjoyable swinging tunes typical of Garner, and it isn't until we get to what would have been considered B-sides in 1961, that the album reveals its true value.

That value begins with Dreamstreet's title track. It's the first of three originals included, with this one being a ballad. Though they would not reproduce the same resonance which carried "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You," the band sashays through the song beautifully. They follow it with a hard turn into "Mambo Gotham," another song he wrote, and easily the most quickly-paced one on the album. The pianist is absolutely wild here, combining a dexterous use of his right hand with the humor he was known to often employ.

The "Oklahoma! Medley" is a nuanced mash-up of three themes from the musical, and those who give it their full attention will be rewarded with a subtle performance wherein Garner effortlessly combines the rhythm of multiple pieces without jarring interludes or uneven delivery.

Alternately, the tempo of "Sweet Lorraine" sounds muddled at times, and if Dreamstreet has a weak spot this is surely it. Though he proceeds with confidence, it just seems as if Garner didn't have a specific destination in mind as he worked his way through the song.

Since the Erroll Garner Jazz Project's inception in 2014, seven previously unheard compositions by the pianist have seen the light of day. The 2016 Legacy album Ready Take One, though somewhat uneven, revealed "Back to You," which stands as one of the musician's most elegant pieces. It was truly shocking to discover that something of such quality lay buried for so long. The bonus track for Dreamstreet is "By Chance," another new song by Garner, restored from the original reels recorded between December 15 and 18, 1959. He, along with bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Kelly Martin, are said to have reported to the studio for late evening sessions, sometimes playing until near dawn. It's a shame that it took sixty years for a fun little jaunt like this to be uncovered, and the question is left to linger as to how many more treasures exist in the estate's box of reels and tapes.

Three years may not seem like an excessive hiatus in today's jazz scene, but for a performer who was essentially on top of the world at the close of the 1950s, it was unprecedented. With Dreamstreet, Garner returned with a statement; he was worth the wait.

Erroll Garner
Closeup In Swing
Mack Avenue
1961

Recorded in the summer of 1961, Closeup In Swing was the second of Erroll Garner's albums for Octave Music, and the second to be released that year. Eddie Calhoun and Kelly Martin, on bass and drums, respectively, rejoined the pianist. They were arguably the best group he worked with, and a good deal of Garner's most significant work featured them together.

Much as was the case for Dreamstreet, Closeup In Swing was put together from a series of late night sessions in New York. In this case, they were his first of the sixties, taken two years later when Garner was completely free of his contractual obligations to Columbia. Living up to the album's title, he swings out of the gate with "You Do Something To Me," playing the tune with a forceful, in-your-face swagger. There seems to be a jittery tension emanating from the pianist during this release, as if he were just a bit too amped up that summer. This energy works well for rambunctious takes on standards such as "St. Louis Blues" and "Back In Your Own Backyard," but becomes a hindrance during the few ballads which make their appearance here. "My Silent Love" and "I'm In The Mood For Love" lack the misty-eyed romance he tended to bring to these sorts of pieces. While his technical prowess, though it's doubtful he himself would refer to it as such, is on full display as is typical, only "No More Shadows," penned by Garner himself, seems to have a distinct atmosphere of its own.

Closeup In Swing provides a fun time and an uninhibited Erroll Garner, but in comparison to his inaugural effort for Octave earlier in the year, it tends to work harder not to allow the attention to wander from time to time.

With the increased public interest in unearthed recordings by now deceased jazz musicians, record companies are clamoring to make use of any material available. This has led to some hit or miss releases, and it opens a discussion as to whether some music should remain buried. The new material issued by The Erroll Garner Jazz Project thus far has been of a high quality, and it seems that they aren't simply piecing together unfinished work in an effort to cash in on his name. For instance, it's been said that over sixty songs were recorded in the sessions for Closeup in Swing, yet only a single track, titled "Octave 103," was given restorative treatment. It's a song that begins with a bit of humor, especially during his introduction, and the bouncing melody is more memorable than any of those on Closeup In Swing which preceded it. That said, the fact that just this lone song is included lends credence to the notion that the group is being extremely selective in their process. Hopefully they are of a mind to respect not only Garner's legacy, but his tendency toward perfectionism, in the coming years.

Erroll Garner
One World Concert
Mack Avenue Records
1963

One thing Erroll Garner didn't seem to fear was commitment. The professional relationships he cultivated were rarely fleeting. After being approached by her early in the 1950s, he and Martha Glaser would work as a team for the remaining three decades of his life. Either by loyalty or a distaste for change, the musicians with whom he worked are no exception either. During the first decade of his career, he would be joined by a handful of different sidemen. It wasn't until 1955, and his famous concert recording in Carmel that he would meet bassist Eddie Calhoun. By the time his reflective Paris Impressions (Columbia) hit in 1958, drummer Kelly Martin had joined the band, and Garner would have his most consistent trio. They would remain together until 1966, and as enjoyable as some of the final albums he put out were, the musicianship was never quite as remarkable as during these years. This will likely become more evident as the Octave Remastered Series continues into its second act in 2020.

In 1962, the World's Fair attracted nearly ten million people to Seattle, including Elvis Presley, Walt Disney, and Lynden Johnson. Part of the United States' goal regarding the fair was to project its strength and affluence to the rest of the world. The grounds included a Fine Arts building as well as a Playhouse where Erroll Garner, as well as numerous other musicians, served as cultural representations of America. Garner spent a week there, recording over twelve hours of material on stage. He later culled from that overabundance the dozen songs which were included on the original album.

One of the most obvious things The Erroll Garner Jazz Project has done with their treatment of his material is to ensure that his trademark off-the-cuff introductions remain intact. In this new restoration, the characteristic grunts and growls he emits as he audibly works through each piece sound right at hand. When combined with the crowd noise, this ensures that the listener is treated to a front row seat for performances of "Lover Come Back To Me," and "Movin' Blues." The way Garner approaches a standard such as "The Way You Look Tonight" or "Mack The Knife," deconstructing the piece only to re-envision it with his rakish sense of humor and relentless attack, emblematizes the adventurous spirit of jazz.

It's a mystery if the entire weeks worth of performances still exist, but if so, the question of an eventual box set should arise. It's a joy to hear Garner interacting with his audiences during live events, and those at the World's Fair are no exception. Of course, any performance of his after the mid-fifties would be incomplete without the appearance of his famous "Misty," and One World Concert is no exception. This particular instance of the then-new standard begins with an elegant introduction before the pianist settles into the familiar lush melody with a great deal of flourish that permeates the five minute rendition. He must have recorded a handful of takes of this song, and if there was any debate in his mind as he sifted through them, the Seattle crowd's enthusiastic response to this one probably held some sway.

The bonus track on One World Concert is "Other Voices," which he had written five years earlier, in 1957, for the album of the same name. Until now, that version, which featured an orchestra, was the only one available. Erroll Garner is known, now more than ever, for his live performances. One World Concert continues to prove that the pianist was at his best when seated upon a stack of phone books, perpetually looking up from the keys to smile at and acknowledge an audience. Just as it was on Nightconcert (Mack Avenue, 2018), "Thanks For The Memory" serves as a concise denouement for the album, and one perfectly in keeping with Garner's personality.

There is no more honest a way of cultivating insight into a musician than hearing them perform live. For the majority of people who will listen to this album, the opportunity to hear Erroll Garner in that setting exists only in black and white video. One World Concert gives him an opportunity to captivate new audiences with his surprising twists and turns, expanding his endowments into a new century.

Erroll Garner
A New Kind Of Love
Mack Avenue Records
1963

In 1963, Erroll Garner would be contacted by Paramount Studios to write theme music for their new romantic comedy starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Though he had refrained from this sort of job in the past, due to his objection to the use of jazz during films featuring lewd or violent material, Garner acquiesced upon Paramount's promise that their new production would be far from dismal.

A New Kind of Love is one of the more intricately assembled albums in Garner's discography, and while listeners seeking the pianist in typical form may be more inclined to the likes of Dreamstreet, his theme work for the film is absolutely fascinating. He paired with one of Hollywood's most successful composers, Leith Stevens, to mold his ideas into the context of a movie production.

The charm possessed by the film version of A New Kind Of Love stems entirely from its two lead actors. Without their inimitable presence, the film would hardly rise above the vapid excuses for romantic comedy that contemporary Hollywood dispenses like thirty-million dollar condoms from a restroom vending machine. While the film, suffering from an often bland script, was hilarious at times but otherwise forgettable, the album Garner furnished from his contributions to its soundtrack does not share that weakness.

Stevens would rejoin Garner during the production of the album, as the pianist intended to continue to utilize a full thirty-five piece orchestra, in addition to expanding upon the relatively simple compositions he created for Paramount. One of the demands this specific sort of work imposes upon an artist is the need to quickly provision a time and place in people's minds. With its principal locations set in New York and Paris, the themes Garner wrote succeed in conveying a romanticized, affluent version of two of Hollywood's favorite cities.

A New Kind Of Love works best when laying down a specific mood. Where "Steve's Song" captures Newman's gallivanting attitude, the album-opening "You Brought A New Kind Of Love To Me" may be the best example of this achievement. It's every bit a product of the early 1960s, capturing a young Woodward strolling through a late-evening Paris, lost in her own reverie. "In The Park In Paree" and "Theme From A New Kind Of Love (All Yours)" also succeed in capturing this vibe to smart effect.

Included are three different iterations of "Paris Mist." The two which originally came on the album -a bossa nova version and a waltz and swing version -share the same melody from the string and horn sections but take entirely different tempos. The third, pared down to simply piano, bass, and drums, serves as the bonus track. Although it's a bit awkward transitioning from a full orchestra to Garner's typical trio, the song serves as a more satisfying finale than "The Tease" ever did. Garner was once quoted as stating that "Playing is like life. Either you feel it or you don't." It is obvious throughout his film score that the pianist wasn't simply phoning in a performance for a Hollywood paycheck, but really delving into the characters and emotions his music represented.

Garner's particular brand of upbeat left-handed dominance paired with bubbly humor suited Newman's trademark wide-grinning wry demeanor perfectly. It's a shame more jazz musicians aren't contributing to film soundtracks, as the genre has an ability to perfectly impart the full gamut of emotions from amusement to sorrow within any context. A New Kind Of Love plays with an overarching sense of adventure and romance, and stands as one of Erroll Garner's more underrated efforts.

Tracks and Personnel

Dreamstreet

Tracks: Just One Of Those Things; I'm Getting Sentimental Over You; Blue Lou; Come Rain Or Come Shine; The Lady Is A Tramp; When You're Smiling; Sweet Lorraine; Dreamstreet; Mambo Gotham; Oklahoma! Medley; By Chance.

Personnel: Erroll Garner: piano; Eddie Calhoun: bass; Kelly Martin: drums.

Closeup In Swing

Tracks: You Do Something To Me; My Silent Love; All Of Me; No More Shadows; St. Louis Blues; Some Of These Days; I'm In The Mood For Love; El Papa Grande; The Best Things In Life Are Free; Back In Your Own Backyard; Octave 103.

Personnel: Erroll Garner: piano; Eddie Calhoun: bass; Kelly Martin: drums.

One World Concert

Tracks: The Way You Look Tonight; Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe; Sweet And Lovely; Mack The Knife; Other Voices; Lover Come Back To Me; Misty; Movin' Blues; Dancing Tambourine; Thanks For The Memory.

Personnel: Erroll Garner: piano; Eddie Calhoun: bass; Kelly Martin: drums.

A New Kind Of Love

Tracks: You Brought A New Kind Of Love To Me; Louise; Fashion Interlude; Steve's Song; Paris Mist (Bossa Nova Version); Mimi; Theme From A New Kind Of Love (All Yours); In The Park In Paree; Paris Mist (Waltz And Swing Version); The Tease; Paris Mist (Trio Version).

Personnel: Erroll Garner: piano; Anatol Kaminsky, Erno Neufelo, Israel Baker, Marshall Sosson, Gerald Vinci, Nathan Ross, Joe Stepansky, Jacques Casselin, Victor Arno, Paul Shure: violins; Paul Robyn, Virginia Majewski, Allan Harshman, Stan Harris: violas; Kurt Reher, Ray Kramer, Eleanor Slatkin, Armand Kaproff: cello; Keith Mitchell: bass; Alvin Stoller: drums; Verlyle Brilhart: harp; Harry Klee, Ted Nash: alto flute; Ronald Laninger, Morris Crawford: clarinet; Justin Gordon, Charles Gentry: bass clarinet; Frank Flynn: bongos, timpani; Larry Bunker: tambourine; George Roberts: saxophone; Dick Nash: baritone saxophone; Carroll Lewis: flugelhorn; Barney Kessel: electric guitar.
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