Back in the thick of the American Federation of Musicians' recording ban of 1948—when musicians were prohibited by their union from recording until the record labels met union demands for higher royalty payments—George Shearing sailed for London. The British-born blind pianist had spent the previous 12 months in New York, recording for Savoy in December 1947 and playing on 52d Street for much of 1948, astonishing bop musicians and audiences alike.
In London in November 1948, Shearing recorded eight sides for Decca, including Consternation, a crisp Bach-meets-bop original.The 2-minute-and-40-second tune had an infectious melody and showcased a range of Shearing's breathtaking techniques, including a hair-raising block-chords passage in which both hands created four-part harmony and moved in unison.
Shearing would record Consternation only two more times in his career—once live in 1979 and again in 1994 when he recreated his quintet sound. Consternation was so perfectly executed in 1948 that the song has been recorded only seven other times and never by a piano-led trio.
Perhaps the only version that matched Shearing's execution for sheer inventiveness was by Machito [pictured] and His Afro-Cubans in June 1953. The big-band treatment—called Consternacion—featured a startling modern arrangement that must have been written by Chico O'Farrill. Only O'Farrill could have arranged with that kind of jazz sophistication while retaining an authentic mambo flavor.
Machito's Consternacion opens with a Latin-cool fanfare and then proceeds to run down the song's melody, supported by a medium-tempo mambo beat. Then the arrangement shifts gears and becomes a pure Latin play—with trombones, trumpets and reeds playing different syncopative figures. The arrangement winds down with a progression that's as cool as the intro. Perhaps as a tribute, Machito's version lasts 2:40—the exact same duration as Shearing's original.
Machito and O'Farrill's choice of Shearing's Consternation may owe something to Shearing's early affinity for Afro-Cuban beats, the fact that Shearing recorded with Machito's percussionist Armando Peraza in April 1953—two months before the Machito session—and the fact that both O'Farrill and Shearing knew each other.
JazzWax tracks: Machito's Consternacion is available for 99 cents at iTunes on an album called Machito: Tremendo Cumban—or you can buy the CD here. Dig the modern pen of Chico O'Farrill, the arranger who probably did more to unite Latin and jazz than any other artist during the 1950s. Tremendo Cumban features exciting Machito mambo recordings from 1953 and 1954.