George Shearing is seated at the beautiful Bösendorfer in his living room on New York’s Upper East Side. He depresses the keys so gently that the ensuing sound is barely audible. He then lightens his attack even more, so that each note is somewhere between a whisper and silence. “You can’t do that on every instrument,” he says approvingly, adding: “I’ve spent my life on touch and sound, and very little on Hanon exercises.
There were so many great technicians in jazz. What’s the point of me trying to play like Art Tatum? I’ve done it on several occasions, and I’ve lost every time!” A surprising statement, for the self-effacing Shearing came as close as anyone to duplicating the dazzlingly clean runs of Tatum, one of his early idols. But perhaps not so surprising, for the 83-year-old pianist has spent some seven decades seeking a sound. And whenever critics and fans thought they could pigeonhole him, that quest led him in new directions.