Enamored: “To inspire with love, captivate”… I have always been a fan enamored by George Shearing’s piano career since I was 13, but I find myself returning to this master of the piano a second time around some 29 years later in my life with the new obsession of studying him intensely.
The wiki on him is profound, ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Shearing ) including Grammy wins twice, and being “knighted by the queen”. Although thorough, “Sir George’s” wiki doesn’t mention what I recently deduced for myself after hearing an interview with him on YouTube as follows: When asked how he came about the “Shearing Sound”, or “locked-hands” way of soloing/improvising with chords (identical to what arrangers call “four-way-closed-double-lead” chord voicing when writing sax-soli sections for big bands), Shearing explained that in a way, he was sort of forced to do so. Now let me explain that; Sir George said that when he immigrated to the United States, producers heard him performing in N.Y. (shortly after that big war in the 40’s), wanted to grant him record deals, but bill him “The English Fats Waller meets, Teddy Wilson/Tatum”. Sir George continues by saying that he took the deals, but felt it was a bit asinine to be “an English” version of anyone when we (in the U.S. at the time) already had “the real ones” – i.e. Waller, Wilson, & Tatum. He (Sir George), then took the liberty of enhancing, by literally “taking the ball and running away with it”, the “Block-chord” approach of soloing on the piano, but in a be-bop fashion – George’s implementation of not just playing be-bop lines, but actually doing it with “block-chords” was happening in the late 1940’s! Innovator perhaps? He sites the inspiration of studying the nice sounds of block chords from organist/pianist Milt Buckner, and the sax section of the Glenn Miller orchestra for the record.
Additionally, to pair up the top voice of piano melody done in block chord on vibraphone, and the lower voice with guitar became “The Shearing Sound” whereas his quintets are concerned. I caution you though, Sir George wasn’t just that guy with popular albums rendered through the “block chord” sounds of his quintets, remember this; he was an Englishman/European, and a pianist in love with America’s jazz movement, swing, musicals and songbook. His English upbringing inevitably gave him a classical education on the piano and an affinity for European classical music when he crossed the Atlantic all those years ago. If we take that in consideration with his “being here” during the early minutes of history when be-bop jazz was being made, it’s no wonder we’re left with such gems as his classic Shearing quintet sounds pioneered in the 40’s & 50’s, amazing be-bop sounds as evident on such albums like Shearing with the Montgomery brothers, and multiple decades of “Third Stream” yet swingin’ jazz approaches to solo piano. Six decades of recordings, and even more decades of performing, not to mention his collaboration and co-led recordings with some of the greatest names in music, not to mention Sir George’s arranging and compositions, – quite a legacy.
Just think for a minute what the Nat King Cole Trio would have sounded like had it been a quartet with vibes. Ponder the Red Garland approach to melodies on his classic trio recordings on Prestige, and the multitude of pianists like Nat Cole, Oscar, Phineas, Benny Green, who use fast block chords in their soloing.
While imagining those familiar, pianistic sounds, think about the impressionistic, classical influenced, jazz piano sounds of that other “limb of the jazz family tree” that branches out into the likes of Evans and Jamal, to Jarrett and Mehldau. It seems that we sometimes forget to mention Shearing in “shop-talk” around our city and that Shearing’s approach of blending classical with jazz, most evident on his post 1970’s solo piano works, exhibit yet another side of Shearing, and a very important musical contribution that has influenced multiple generations. Anyways, in my book that’s significant, and he’s spectacular.
I’m just respecting the man and his music right now, and enjoying streaming a great YouTube channel featuring Sir George which is keeping the musical neurons in my head firing with inspiration.
Just my thought for today,
~ Tony Pacini