Friday, February 18, 2011

You're hearing George Shearing... no more

I forget what night I saw it over the last weekend, but we were watching the news or the Grammys and they streamed info at the bottom of the screen saying that pianist George Shearing had passed away at age 91. I always, as this blog shows, feel affected by the death of a jazz musician but this one had a bit of personal connection.

My parents dug Shearing and his name was always synonymous in our house with the folks' idea of good jazz (more melodic stuff than harmonic complexity, and much of which came from the West Coast). I still recall the Christmas that my mum got Pop a copy of The Swingin's Mutual, the album Nancy Wilson made with the Shearing group.

During his years on Capitol, Shearing made a lot of easy listening albums that involved mellow brass or strings, with some comely lass posing on the album cover. (In the opening of the hotel room scene in A Hard Day's Night, either Paul or his grandfather is holding one of them. Product placement for Mums and Dads in the audience at the matinees?) These albums are now pretty much a dime a dozen, right next to the Herb Alperts in the thrift stores, and they don't paint a definitive portrait of the British pianist.

The best way to find out what put Shearing on the map is to find his MGM sides with the first quintets, which included guitar and vibes. There, you hear his remarkable melodic skills as well as a sharp, incisive ear for arrangements that broadened the spectrum of how groups like that played. The approach was known as "locked hands," where the left hand of the piano carried the melody, which the guitar and the vibes doubled and harmonized. The beauty of the whole thing is how subtle it is. It tugs at your ear, making you think that something is going on here. It's hard to tell what it is unless you're a musician, and in the end it doesn't matter.

Also, Shearing told me in an interview that he told all his vibes players not to play with the vibrato on, so as to avoid the "yoy-yoy-yoy-yoy" sound that comes from sustained, vibratoed notes. He might've liked it mellow, but not that mellow.

That was around 2000 that I spoke with him, to preview a performance at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. I remember it was a Saturday afternoon, not too long after I started working full time at InPgh that it happened. Other than a Sonny Rollins interview during an internship several years earlier, this was my first time talking to a bigtime jazz legend. Since I wasn't exactly up on the Shearing catalog at that point, I was a bit apprehensive. But we got into a great conversation, where he congenially explained locked hands and myriad other subjects. He was a great guy.

There's a passage in On the Road that also made me think, as a teenager, that maybe Shearing was edgier than I had initially thought. The two main characters are up on speed and they check Shearing out in a club and get completely blown away by the fire he's creating onstage. In fact the scene practically sets the standard for that of any '50s movie that takes place in a jazz club: where some character is getting way to into the music, and keeps yelling stuff like, "Go, daddy, go! Yeah, baby!" with coiffed hair getting disheveled the more he gets into the music. I haven't read On the Road in over 20 years but I think that scene is followed by the realization by Sal Paradise that it wasn't all music that was making him feel that way, but the drugs. And the bringdown has a reflective moment to it.

Still, he could've talked about seeing the Jazz Messengers or Clifford Brown, or even Gerry Mulligan, but no - it was Shearing.

And then there are all those duo albums he did with Mel Torme, which brought together two skilled craftsmens who created something that was really top-shelf. (These are another big item in the family history. We heard them a lot in the '80s before the console broke.) Most memorable to me is their version of "I'm Hip," where Torme pokes fun at goofball jazz fans of his era. Beautiful. I hope they're playing together again somewhere.

Thanks for everything, George. Literally, without you, I don't know where I'd be.


nevermore said...

Very nice, Mike. Enjoyed it!

shanleymusic said...

Thanks, Bro.