The album title Everybody Digs Bill Evans would have been better applied to jazz pianist Erroll Garner. Though he was self-taught and unable to read music, Garner had enough technique to silence all doubters. He could unravel and re-tie the melodic lines of standards with enough ingenuity to impress hardcore beboppers, but the melodies themselves remained accessible to the most untutored listeners, and once Garner hit his commercial stride in the early 1950s he kept his sizeable audience until illness forced him to retire in the early 1970s. Erroll Garner’s music was popular in the best sense of the word: technically sophisticated without being insular, emotionally direct without being gushingly sentimental, utterly personal yet open to all comers. He literally bridged the gap between the forbidding Charlie Parker, who liked him enough to hire him for his 1947 “Cool Blues” sessions, and the affable mainstream television personality Johnny Carson, who frequently featured him on The Tonight Show.
The cornerstone of Garner’s technique was his ability to trade off between the rhythm and melody lines, sometimes lagging the beat with his left hand, other times pushing against the right hand melody line to achieve a subtle tension and release that made his playing swing like mad. His trademark was to play long, elaborate introductions before swinging into the song itself, and even though the intros sometimes seemed ready to stand as separate works in their own right, somehow they always managed to fit the song at hand.
Garner’s best known tune is “Misty,” one of those sighing middle-of-the-road ballads that you’ve probably heard a hundred times in various arrangements and settings without knowing the name or pedigree. Let’s just say it’s not my favorite work from the man: Garner himself skirted the bounds of taste whenever he played it, and in the hands of innumerable lesser musicians it sounds like something composed by Mantovani — or, gawd help us, Liberace. There was a certain spiky wit at play when Clint Eastwood, a lifelong jazzbo and competent pianist, put this lachrymose ballad at the center of his directorial debut, a mad-fan thriller called Play Misty for Me.
The place to begin with Erroll Garner is Concert By the Sea, recorded and released in 1955 shortly after “Misty” made him a household name. The record, a perennial bestseller, offers a typical Garner concert roster: standards, show tunes and originals lovingly turned on their heads, then set right again after some meaty rounds of improvisation. The sound is below par even for the time, which means we miss much of the bass and drums interplay at the heart of the trio format, but the sheer exuberance and charm of Garner’s musicianship makes it a keeper anyway. “Misty” is absent, but instead you get an epic performance of “Autumn Leaves” that skirts the boundaries of schmaltz without ever quite toppling into the grease. It’s a wonderful record, a great introduction to Garner’s music and a fine sample of entry-level jazz for anyone new to the music. At the prices it’s available for these days, you can’t go wrong buying it.
If you know the original release backwards and forwards, or if you simply want more bang for your disc space, this 2007 reissue appends a 1963 Garner performance at the Seattle World’s Fair. The setlist complements that of Concert By the Sea, and includes “Misty” in its original 1954 incarnation as well as the 1963 live version.