Few jazz piano players have had as much influence on other jazz pianists as Erroll Garner. Except Art Tatum, of course. But where Tatum used pure technique to deliver his signature sound, Garner was largely about thickness and style. You can hear Garner's musical wit and approach in Oscar Peterson, in Red Garland, in Bud Powell and so many others.
Garner couldn't read music, which I suppose puts him on par with Tatum, who was blind. Pianist Mary Lou Williams, who went to high school with Garner in Pittsburgh, once tried to teach him. But Garner bowed out gracefully, knowing full well that the process of learning would only transform and ruin what he and all listeners enjoyed most—hearing that uneven perfection known as Erroll Garner.
In addition to being a pure, unschooled jazz musician, Garner also was a nice guy. So much so that you always had the feeling that he did bass players and drummers a favor by keeping them employed. He really didn't need them. Listening to Garner you always feel you're listening to four pianists. His hands were that good and distinct.
Garner loved audiences and never disappointed, whether playing clubs or concerts. He exuded a certain charm that doesn't exist anymore. In Garner's case, that elan could only come from the joy and relief of knowing you're so good at what you do you'll never have to worry about work again.
When you see Garner in video clips, he's dressed immaculately, his hair is jet black and shiny as the back of a wet seal, and he sweats to the point that it looks as if he were playing in the rain. Garner not only enjoyed listening to himself, his iron-hard hands could actually execute whatever he heard in his head—without so much as glancing at the keyboard. Quite a trick.
Whitney Balliett recalled in a 1977 essay an anecdote told to him by record producer George Avakian about a Columbia recording session in 1953:
"Erroll rattled off thirteen numbers, averaging over six minutes each...with no rehearsal and no re-takes. Even with a half-hour pause for coffee, we were finished twenty-seven minutes ahead of the three hours of normal studio time—but Erroll had recorded over eighty minutes of music instead of the usual ten or twelve, and...his performance...could not have been improved upon. He asked to hear playbacks on two of the numbers, but only listened to a chorus or so of each before he waved his hand."
Garner was one of those rare performers and recording artists who hit the mark the first time out, and he knew it. His left hand walking slowly up the stairs, four beats to a bar, while the right hand danced about, amused, adding an occasional tinkle for emphasis. Or Erroll would suddenly add volume to his playing in a dramatic bid to nudge listeners free from the kind of lethargy that sets in when perfection lasts too long.
In recent years, the record industry seems to have forgotten about Garner. While the Savoy and Dial dates from 1945-49 have been available for some time, many others between 1944 and 1976 (Garner died in January 1977) have been missing or sound miserably flat. I'm told Mosaic Records was planning a box but couldn't come to terms with Garner's estate.
About a week ago, I had a terrible craving for Garner's Long Ago and Far Away, recorded for Columbia in 1951, having heard it played on the radio recently very late at night. But when I went to see what was available on Amazon and iTunes, all that turned up was the dull sounding Columbia CD from 1990.
So I went onto Amazon and typed in "Erroll Garner + box." Magically, up came a small cinder block of Garner recordings—a 10-CD box from Germany featuring 167 tunes recorded between 1944-1954. All for $25!
So I called the seller (Chicago Overstock), wary that I be might buying a pound of unremastered, unlistenable Garner. The owner assured me that all comments from previous buyers were positive. Then he told me that the box was from 2003. That was a great sign, since most CDs released after that date have received the restoration treatment, especially discs from abroad where listening standards and jazz appreciation are higher.
So I ordered the Erroll Garner "Portrait" box. It arrived yesterday. I opened it up and put on Long Ago and Far Away as a test. I'm happy to report that the song and everything in this box has been restored and sounds fantastic.
The box comes with a 40-page booklet that briskly sums up the many phases of Garner's career, and each CD includes liner notes as well as the personnels and recording dates. Hour after hour of Erroll Garner recordings, one perfect track after the next, in vivid, lush sound.
Wax tracks: If you want this 10-CD box or prefer to take a look at its contents first, you can find it at eBay by typing in "Erroll Garner + 10 CDs."
Also, I noticed last night that Concert by the Sea, long out of print and neglected, has just been remastered and released with additional tracks.
Wax clip: Erroll Garner invented the word charisma. It's impossible not to fall in love with the guy and his playing. If you don't believe me, check out this clip of Where and When or this clip of I Get a Kick Out of You. Clearly, no one enjoyed Erroll Garner's playing more than Erroll!