Will Friedwald, Wall Street Journal
Sept. 26, 2016 4:59pm ET
‘Ready Take One’ by Erroll Garner Review: Dancing on the Keys Once Again
A new release features previously unheard material from the jazz pianist.
There’s a live recording from 1958 featuring a legendary jazz pianist who introduces his band, one member at a time, saving himself for last: “and my name is Erroll Garner.” He then proceeds to play “On the Street Where You Live” with all of Garner’s trademark stylistic devices: the rollicking melody, the rococo embellishments, the sense of adventure and swing, the startling thumps to the bass with the left elbow. It’s classic Garner, but it isn’t Garner at all—it’s George Shearing. Most imitations of this sort are a deliberate parody, as when Sammy Davis Jr. impersonated Nat King Cole, but Shearing’s is a highly respectful homage in which he reveals how Garner’s style is so effervescent, so full of life and energy, that one doesn’t even have to actually be Erroll Garner to participate in it.
Garner himself died at age 55 in 1977, which was hardly enough time for him to fully explore all the implications of the piano style that he created. Though his recorded catalog is huge (143 sessions are listed in Tom Lord’s online “Jazz Discography”), every new release of previously unheard Garner material is cause for celebration.
“Ready Take One,” being issued by Legacy Recordings and Octave Music on Friday, is especially valuable: Six of this collection’s 14 studio performances from 1967-71 are original Garner compositions not heard since he played them live. “High Wire” is particularly catchy, with Garner stating the melody in the treble against a funky groove laid down by the bass and bongos, while “Wild Music” opens with the pianist heightening the suspense by starting with a grandly Tchaikovsky-like intro, before he lunges into the tune with an exuberance that’s remarkable even for him.
But Garner’s interpretations of standards were, if anything, even more compelling. Being familiar with the actual melodies allows us to look more closely at what Garner does with them—and often there’s a sense of duality, between tension and release, control and abandon. The most basic visual metaphor for Garner’s playing is the act of dancing. Yet in the standards, in particular, one gets a sense of two figures moving, and not necessarily in a social/partner kind of dance—rather, one can always sense the melody and, at the same time, another figure dancing around it. Garner isn’t merely a solo dancer, he’s a whole dance team all by himself.
In Garner’s hands, “Night and Day” and “Sunny” trade places with each other. Cole Porter’s 1932 classic becomes a bluesy riff that suddenly sounds completely contemporary, while Bobby Hebb’s 1966 pop hit is treated with the respect usually reserved for the upper echelon of the Great American Songbook. Garner imbues “Sunny” with a significance it never had before and, indeed, renders it worthy to stand besides the work of Porter and of Duke Ellington (who’s represented here with highly original treatments of “Caravan” and “Satin Doll”).
The set ends with “Misty,” Garner’s most famous original. Johnny Burke’s lyric to the contrary, Garner’s rendition is more shiny than anything. He makes his own tune glitter and gleam as if it were sewn together out of sequins— and the piano itself even seems to glow with a kind of inner radiance.
Mr. Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for the Journal.