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George Shearing Quintet: Back to Birdland

All the elements for a historical album exist here, but the present keeps interfering with the past. The title track, “Back to Birdland,” sounds romantic, but as future anthropologists will note, it’s not the original Birdland; it’s not even near the 52nd Street area; and none of the original Shearing Quintet members are on hand.

Most of the arrangements are intact, but this is where the past interferes with the present. Those charts and their overall sonority are tired. Shearing’s playing is beyond criticism and his technique is just as crisp as ever. His taste is impeccable and his gift for understatement in his announcements is as British as ever. But those block chords with the vibes doubling the lead and the surgical precision of the rhythmic hesitations impede the flow of the swing.

“Speak Low” provides the only passion in this multitude of mellowness thanks to the rolling triplets of drummer Dennis Mackrel and bassist Neil Swainson. The firm walking and solo work of Swainson are consistent strengths of this live session. Equally impressive: A pair of solo gems in which Shearing turns “Just Imagine” and “High on a Windy Hill” into impressionistic tone poems. He also deserves plaudits for rescuing the neglected “That Sunday That Summer” and “Drop Me Off in Harlem.”

His single-line bop head doubling with vibist Don Thompson on “Donna Lee” works; the block chord/vibes bop line on “Subconscious Lee” leads to clutter. To paraphrase George’s quote of Thomas Wolfe, “You shouldn’t go home again.”

Originally Published