Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Robert Greenberg Recommends: Erroll Garner

The jazz-inspired revelation that changed my life at the age of fourteen was foisted on me by none-other-than the Elf himself: Erroll Garner.

My dad had a number of Garner LP’s among the various stacks in the record cabinet, most notably the albums “Concert by the Sea” and “Soliloquy”. These records literally drove me wild, and if you had lined ‘em up side-by-side with a scantily clad Gina Lollobrigida and asked my testosterone-ravaged 14 year-old self to choose between the records and the sex kitten, I would have (eventually) chosen La Lollobrigida, but grudgingly and only after a few minutes thought.

That’s how crazy these records made me.

“Concert by the Sea” was recorded on an open reel tape deck by a serviceman named Will Thornbury when Garner and his trio performed in a church outside of Carmel, California in September, 1955. Garner’s manager Martha Glaser took the tape and played it for George Avakian at Columbia Records. Boom: the LP was made and just like that it climbed to the top of the charts, becoming gone of the most successful jazz records of all time.

All these years later, this record still has the power to drive me absolutely bonkers.

In truth, it’s just Garner being Garner: his incredibly lyric, just-behind-the-beat right hand melody lines, lines that sound more like formal variations than improvisations (Leonard Bernstein once lamented that Garner improvised better melodies than he could compose); his strumming, harmonically complex left-hand accompaniments; and his other-worldly sense of swing: so easy and unforced, so freaking cool.

“Soliloquy” remains my favorite Garner album. As its title indicates, it is a solo album, recorded in February 1957. Everything Garner did well on other discs he does best on this one, including his incredible attention to phrase, texture, and formal architecture.

(I studied jazz composing and arranging with the seven-time Grammy Award winner Benny Carter during my sophomore year of college. Carter -1907-2033 – was an amazing musician; a saxophonist, trumpet player, composer, arranger, film scorer and bandleader; who had the apparently unique distinction of recording in eight different decades. Anyway, Benny once told me that Erroll Garner’s arrangements and improvisations were so orchestral in conception that he knew a guy who transcribed them and then simply arranged them for jazz orchestra.)

Garner was born in Pittsburgh, PA in 1923 and died in Los Angeles in 1977. He was entirely self-taught as a pianist, and he never learned how to read music (a “flaw” which precluded him from being allowed to join the Pittsburgh musicians’ union). Instead, he had a phenomenal memory and a natural ease at the keyboard that made man and piano seem indivisible. He rarely (if ever) looked at his hands while he played. Instead, while he grunted and groaned and hummed through a performance, he’d look around, laughing and smiling and spraying sweat off his forehead. He sat up high, well above the keys, which was a function of his famous phone books: at just 5’2” in height, he’d sit on two or three of them when he played.

Below, a killer-wonderful version of Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You”. Typical of pretty much any Garner performance, it is an altogether joyful, amazing, life enhancing, seemingly effortless and utterly enthralling chunk of music making.