Garner's "Concert by the Sea" Survives the Test of Time and Then Some | Connecticut Public Radio

Garner's "Concert by the Sea" Survives the Test of Time and Then Some

Dec 16, 2015

The Erroll Garner boxed set is produced by the great jazz pianist Geri Allen and Grammy-award winning producer Steve Rosenthal.

If you're looking for the perfect last-minute holiday gift for either a devout jazz fan or even a jazz skeptic, your best bet is the impassioned, madly inventive yet readily accessible The Complete Concert by the Sea, a splendid, Grammy-nominated, three-CD boxed set reissue of Erroll Garner's classic, live 1955 performance that became one of the best-selling jazz albums ever.

With fresh tracks newly unearthed by archivists researching for the Erroll Garner Jazz Project -- including 11 previously undiscovered gems -- the digitally restored and remastered pieces are a regal feast of the piano legend's sumptuous, joyful inventions. Graced with the piano equivalent of the hard-driving swing and thick textures of the Count Basie Orchestra and the inexhaustible invention of Charlie Parker, Garner's posh palette of sonic shades and colors and flowing, impressionist lines evoke the reveries of Debussy, the loveliness of Monet's water lilies or haystacks, and shadowy ambiguities and mystery of Whistler's nocturnes.

Count Basie

At the heart of the matter throughout this extraordinary Sony Legacy and Octave Music Publishing Corp. release is the high-energy and relentlessly fresh ideas generated by Garner, along with support from his worthy trio mates, bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Denzil DeCosta Best.

If you love the full-bodied, singing sound of the piano, there's much resonant poetry here for you to savor. Even if you're sure that you loathe jazz as some kind of arcane, terminally boring cerebral exercise, you just might be converted into the jazz fold by Garner's magical ability to create beauty and delight with his melodic and harmonic artistry, accentuated by his play with time, with his right hand lagging just a seductive bit behind the rhythm guitar-like chords chugging authoritatively in his left hand.

Alternating from momentum-building swingers to lush, romantic pastel portraits of ballads, Garner's litany of te deums to the gods of improvisation is launched by his interpretation of "Night and Day," a showcase for his orchestral harmonic sense, sounding here more symphonic than Basie-like. This rich resonance is just one element among his storytelling skills dramatically accented by his emotionally effective use of dynamics.

Charlie Parker
Credit William P. Gottlieb /

"Spring Is Here" -- one of several tunes with a seasonal title cultivated by this pianist for all seasons -- is enveloped in luminous, impressionist colors that were a hallmark of his painterly style. Memorializing April as the coolest rather than the cruelest month, Garner's "I Remember April" rocks with intensity, transfigured into a boundlessly hedonistic homage to improvising on the razor's edge of the moment.

And on it goes, this 5-foot-2, uber-pianist, who had no formal training and couldn't read music, soars supersonically through uptempo pieces. His rip-roaring, Lawrence of Arabia gallop through "Caravan" is still astonishing even after all these years. Also dazzling are the facility and sheer delicacy of his watercolor portraits of romantic ballads ranging from "Teach Me Tonight" to "I Cover the Waterfront." Even his seemingly meandering rococo intros are evocative mini-preludes, hand-crafted, miniaturist works of art melding ornamentation with orientation.

Besides the newly resurrected tracks, this historic package offers such never-before-released material as announcer Jimmy Lyon's onstage commentary, along with backstage interviews with the Garner Trio immediately after the triumphant concert.

The boxed set is produced by the great jazz pianist Geri Allen and four-time Grammy award winning producer Steve Rosenthal. The liner notes are by Allen, author Robin D.G. Kelley and the venerable jazz savant Dan Morgenstern.

An invaluable exhibition of Garner's art, the release is superb musically and historically significant as a rejuvenator of the once enormously popular pianist's shelf-life, which seemed to have virtually expired over the years.

Garner's style was so idiosyncratic that he never inspired a school of followers to sanctify and perpetuate his name. Self-taught and self-reliant, he did it his way, marching to the beat of his own drum. Whenever a pianist imitated him, it invariably sounded like pathetic parody. A cheap knockoff product, imitations might capture some mannerisms but not the matter that made Garner a uniquely original artist of substance.

Erroll Garner, center, with Art Tatum, left, and Count Basie, right.

In his prolific years before he died at only 53 in 1977, Garner frequently played in Connecticut, spreading joy everywhere from Hartford's Bushnell Memorial to Yale's Woolsey Hall. Connecticut's legendary impresario Paul Landerman brought him to the capital city's fabled lounge at the old Heublein Hotel, along with a legion of premier acts ranging from Teddy Wilson to comedian Dick Gregory.

On a dark and stormy night right out of an Edward Bulwer-Lytton novel, Garner once entertained a rain-and-wind battered yet ecstatic crowd of 1,500 devotees huddled under the tent at the old Oakdale Theater in Wallingford.

At the Bushnell, he packed the house, even appearing there one night with the standup comedian, Jackie Vernon. 

In his prolific years before he died at only 53 in 1977, Erroll Garner frequently played in Connecticut.

At another Bushnell bash in the early 1950s, he starred on a dream bill featuring the Stan Kenton Orchestra, which included  Zoot Sims and Lee Konitz, and Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Candido and the comic, Salvador Dali-like surrealist/multi-instrumentalist Slim Gaillard. In 1960, you could see Garner for $4.00 from the best seat in the house, or for $1.50 in the second balcony.

Hartford even had its very own Garner doppelganger, a gifted, puckish piano player/vocalist named Lloyd Gilliam, who brought his Garner-inspired style and charming personality to the region's finest clubs and restaurants.

Gilliam became pals with Garner while playing as a small but fleet-footed safety with the New York Giants football team in the 1940s. He first met Garner in the Big Apple where the red-hot, young pianist was enthralling post-war fans flocking to Manhattan's booming 52nd Street jazz clubs. The two became buddies, with Garner acting as Gilliam's piano mentor.

After Garner's death in 1977, The Hartford Jazz Society memorialized him with a tribute concert, an incredible summit meeting featuring pianists Jaki Byard, Barry Harris and Harold Mabern.

In the grand Garner manner, the evening rocked with swing, eloquence, exuberance, wry humor and life-affirming music, a moving testament to the late maestro's forever joyful legacy.

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