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I am reminded by the recent release of lost studio takes by Erroll Garner, Ready Take One, that my eyes have been thrown always to the heavens with wonderment at his piano playing. When I hear him play it is as though the myriad threads of jazz history, its various twists and turns throughout a century of restless invention, can be united in one ineffable moment of definition: Erroll Garner seated on a piano stool. Not that this was either a straightforward or ergonomic posture, for one of his crowd pleasing acts of mythology was that as a short man (only 5’2″) he was too small to inhabit the piano with ease. He would sit on telephone directories piled high, the thicker the pile the better, and this supposedly to compensate for his diminished stature. Perched precariously and looking guiltily and askance from his eyrie, the thousand childish faces and glottal grunts of Erroll Garner would be launched, each contorted with a nervous sense of inhibition as though he were a child broken free from supervision but missing still the playpen and restraint. Goofy in aspect, fidgety, agitated, turning ceaselessly to the crowd and impatient for their approval, Garner would nosedive from the expected, skinny-dip, bellyflop, splash like an elephant in shallow water, always with a twinkle in his eye, untrammelled and replete with joy. Beads of sweat would drip from his face during performance in the spotlight. He would look for comfort, and he placed in his sights bassist and drummer to whom he would turn often, both to steady his own nervous enthusiasm and to keep them on his side; together they made a steady four-to-the-beat, follow me to the coda essay, an improbably improvised drill that was rehearsed night after night in a concert hall, a club, a television studio or a recording booth. In performance his body visibly sighs with pleasure for this is the life, a life of near carefree and digital abandon.
His crowning achievement was the exquisite use of time, one of the building blocks of the jazz art, and in jazz the possession of swing is nine tenths of the law. Garner’s was as delicate as a sidewinder slipping in the desert sun or as airily intricate as an eel tricking its way from its pit: natural, organic and faultless. The left hand chugs on the beat, chugs relentless as a steam train with a destination, its pistons catching breath as if stoked with a wallop – an occasional and last beat of the bar lunge ahead of itself to unnerve the train, the prospect of derailment and disaster. Yet even this is carried out with aplomb and verve and, as it winds up the track the music has no time to cast a satisfied look over its shoulder, it is already full steam ahead. The nonchalant, breezy and rapid right hand chords sparkle and dance, so effortlessly realized; they invoke onomatopoeic words such as crunch and crash, are delicious, are in a heady accord that both clatters and has grace. But their offbeat timing is the thing. Either momentarily delayed or in anticipation of the beat, they disorientate our ears with the dizziness of steady time. The intermittent, contrasting and playful one note lines (delivered with no forethought of fingering) are leisurely or urgent, lengthy or curtailed with skittish rapture as another, better idea scuttles across the keyboard. All in all his two-handed momentum leaves you bewildered, gently concussed as though smitten about the head with a feather boa: outrageous. All components of Garner’s style shimmer with holistic intent, and there you have it in its entirety: a style so compact, so at one and so at ease with its performer, it is by turns and in equal measure heartbreaking, tender, swank, rumbustious, so much else; sometimes it is all of these in rapid fire succession, and so much else.
There is not a lot to say about Erroll Garner the man. He was born in Pittsburgh, possibly in 1921 or it might have been two years after; he played the piano from three years old. From a very early age he could play back by ear whole passages he had heard only the once; later in his life it is said that after attending a concert by Emil Gilels, the bear of Russian keyboard virtuosi, he rushed back to his room to play back to himself from memory the passages that had affected him most. Music came easy and he learnt never to read a score (his home town’s music union denied him membership for many years on these grounds), but he never needed to read a score. He moved to New York in 1944 and he recorded with Charlie Parker in 1947. This is bebop by rote, cascading and coruscating solo lines for sure, strident, bass acciaccatura notes on the dominant, stabbed chords and other keyboard tics copied from Bud Powell, but when accompanying Parker, Garner is wooden and unsure and a fish out of water. His walk-on part in the main jazz fold is completed by an oft-used, stock photo of 52nd Street, Manhattan’s bebop boulevard that housed many of the vibrant clubs of the day: Garner’s name is on the billboard of the Three Deuces. But the truth is that he was always a musical loner. Bebop, in keyboard parlance, was not the full seven octaves and was weighted to the pianist’s right hand; Garner ran up and down the keyboard with two full fisted hands and was not inclined to cut his musical cloth to accommodate others. By the early 1950s his musical voice is pronounced and he took flight. His manner of playing became so secure and comfortable in its individuality that even today he remains a backwater of the jazz idiom, an outpost who failed not only to take on new ideas throughout his career but offered no coat-tails upon which acolytes could ride. Garner is a church brass of which no rubbing can be made, and any rubbing would be seen immediately for what it is – grand theft.
The trio was his format of choice and throughout his career he stayed faithful to it; he performed solo in earlier days and he gave way to an extra percussionist occasionally in his later years as he aped popular Latin sounds and he chopped up his left hand rhythms. Garner was feted worldwide and was a popular guest on many prime time TV shows (Johnny Carson a massive fan, so too Mike Douglas). He was one of the most marketable names in jazz, so marketable that it fell outside the remit of the diehard. Garner’s album Concert By The Sea, a 1955 live recording made on the hoof and initially for private consumption, was released by his label, Columbia, in simulated stereo and was a hefty commercial success. His composition Misty was a worldwide hit (Johnny Mathis alone sold over two million copies and he took it to be his signature tune); it was also the prompt for the Clint Eastwood film Play Misty For Me. There can be little doubt that his estate was considerable upon his death, but what Garner did with his fortune is not clear for no sense of his biography is ever traced via Google. Seemingly he was a reluctant interviewee although the one example on YouTube is conversational and intelligent. In 1977 he beat Prince to a heart attack in a lift: his heart failure was related to chronic emphysema and was the result, I think, of chain smoking, Wikipedia is bereft of hard fact.
If the man is a riddle lost in his time, the piano playing remains with us and it is still daring and louche, off-kilter and breathtaking in its cheek and élan. The sonority at his fingertips matched that of a big band. His homespun technique could interpret any sound that he could hear in his ear’s imagination; in fact the brilliance of his technique was almost unsurpassed, jaw-dropping not only in its execution but also in its invention. Musically he inhabited his own world and cumulatively over the length of a career its scope can be seen, of course, as limited; he had no ambition other than to do what he found easy. Of so much of his performance it would be possible to speak only in the superlative, but peculiarly he exhibited little aesthetic taste. This makes me fond of him even more (if rather more keen to skip LP tracks) for it hints at stubbornness and an idle disposition, as though he didn’t have the attention to do his homework properly and didn’t care that much for the consequence: he was all about having a good time. One of his trademarks was to bolt on a random introduction to a piece, often two handed and disjointed burlesque or gibberish that would depict, say, two cats fighting in a phone box, and seldom did the introduction relate to the song’s content: it teased his audience but was naff and exhibitionist. He was known for his ballad playing, yet all I hear is rhapsodic tinsel, indulgent and gushing left hand smooch with an excess of pedal; Liberace could have done worse but few others in the history of popular piano. Yet for all the musical candyfloss and his saccharine tooth, Erroll Garner’s voice was not just sweet but bold and precise. He wished to communicate and entertain, to impart joy. If only for a brief moment he bolted urbanity to the commonplace, hyperbole to the throwaway. Above all else he wanted to kid you that he was not just heartfelt but profound: he was a one-night stand that sought to offer love and affection, and I love him for that.