Monday, January 11, 2016


It's not much of a stretch to designate pianist Erroll Garner the Rodney Dangerfield of Jazz. From the Forties to--what?--the early Seventies, Garner was praised for the myriad sessions he'd cut for labels large and small--Dial and Blue Note, Mercury/EmArcy and Columbia--and he had (still has) one of the most popular and best-selling albums in Jazz history, his Concert by the Sea, recorded live in Carmel, California, in 1955.

Then his place in Jazz seemed to vanish. The Fusion/Disco/Rock Drums/Death of Jazz era came crashing down, maybe more on Erroll than others. His exuberant, happy piano was ruled fatuous and simplistic, partly because he couldn't read music. (So every session was truly improvised, first note to last.) The style he had devised--long, quizzical, inventive introductions followed by a kind of theme-and-variations dissection of the song, ending (usually) in a percussive, emphatic, slowing-to-a-stop of the music--was finally rejected as more ignorant than original, and his habit of grunting along with the melody sneered at (before Keith Jarrett brought a whole barnyard of ecstatic noises to the recording studio). Because the diminutive, elfin Erroll needed telephone directories to lift him higher on the piano bench, even this quirk was held against him. Yes, he couldn't "get no respect."

Garner died in the Seventies before the digital era and multiple-reissue CD sets brought artists back from Jazz obscurity. But throughout the decades of his eclipse, Concert by the Sea kept selling. I first heard Garner in the early Sixties, another college kid more ignorant than hip, drawn to the bouncy joy of his records, and then I got to see Erroll in action at the Seattle World's Fair. I didn't know anything about Jazz back then, but I had no trouble enjoying Garner at the keyboard; I subsequently learned of his proficiency (able to record enough tracks in one three-hour session to produce three separate 12-inch LongPlay records!), and I even loved his deluxe two-disc set of tunes celebrating Paris and France, many of them played on harpsichord. My vinyl copy of the Carmel concert had to be replaced a couple of times as the years passed, and I finally gave up imagining an expanded issue. But a couple of months ago, without much fanfare, The Complete Concert by the Sea suddenly appeared, 60 years on.

First we must acknowledge the startling largesse of this set--now twice as long as the hallowed original--launching 22 grand excursions instead of the merely wonderful 11 chosen for the classic Concert album. And let no man (no woe-man) beguile you with carping, because the new numbers are just as splendid as the long-familiar eleven. BUT the set now does bump up against a couple of minor matters: a possible surfeit of sufficiency, and (what we might call) the natural order of things. The Complete Concert now takes up two of the three discs, each totaling over 60 minutes in length, so we are farther than ever from the third-of-an-hour sides of the original 12" disc. It is unexpectedly clear that the LP era trained many millions of us His-Master's-Voice, Pavlov's vinyl dogs to live out our lives in 20-minute segments. I guess you could say that these 60-minute CDs are therefore easy to listen to but hard to hear!

Also, recreating the "new" full-length concert rearranged for a chronological placement of tunes, seems to destroy the structured rise-and-fall, the careful build-up to a musical climax, that I believe one can hear in the 11 selections as originally presented. (This arrangement you can hear on Disc Three of the new set. I suppose there must be hundreds of concert albums that silently offer a selection arranged for effectiveness, but being able immediately to compare the two versions I'll bet is uncommon.)

I don't want to belabor the matters mentioned. This three CD set is a veritable feast for sore ears. (As we used to say in Spanish class, Punto final.) Instead, I'm going to end the brief review right here by advising all Garner and Concert by the Sea fans to proceed with abandon rather than caution. What was for 60 years a concise source of piano pleasure has belatedly and amazingly become an embarrassment of riches... even if henceforth I may personally choose to program Disc Three ahead of the other two.


Steve Provizer said...

Garner-always a pleasure to listen to. Funny about the time extension on cd. It's not that less is more, it's, as you say, about pacing. Part of it is that our ears learned to anticipate the next track, part of it is that our body anticipated having to turn over the disc and our brains knowing how much of our drink we could get through before we had to get up.

IWitnessEd said...

What if you are a teetotaler? But seriously, folks, and you too Steve, I think maybe you are giving too much credit to alarm clock in our brains. I always was playing catch up rather than anticipating the flipover, and now you've got me wondering if the 20-minute habit was an early stage of mankind's apparent evolution toward short-attention-span dumbing down. Are CDs failing due to experience of excessive length--boredom setting in, that is--rather than some splintering of culture or failure of artistry?

Steve Provizer said...

The first restriction was 3:00 per side. That lasted for about 50 years. Then we moved through your 20 minute barrier which was definitely not a dumbing down. Digital technology broke down that barrier, but there is a sense of "just because you can do it, should you?" A debate could be had about whether every tenor solo taken since 1970 has been too long.