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Erroll Garner: Now Playing

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As this review sees print, it is twenty-five years since Erroll Garner passed away. With him went an approach to the piano and improvisation that remains unique in the history of jazz. Though formally unschooled-he never learned to read music-Garner had a nonpareil sense of harmonic relationships and form, which led to disarmingly different arrangements of pop standards, and to some of the most astonishing improvised introductions ever to grace a grand piano (Baldwin, please).

Garner’s approach eschewed the linear flurries that so many of his peers inflict on a piece. He looks instead for an approach that marries the intent of arrangement and composition, usually based on a rhythmic scheme driven by his left hand. That motor function, often ably assisted by a conga player, usually Jose Mangual, anchors each performance and is the foundation for the counterpoint that came so naturally to him. The twelve LPs worth of music in the Telarc set represent Garner’s releases for his own Octave Records from the late ’50s through the early ’70s. His rhythm mates most often comprise Eddie Calhoun on bass and Kelly Martin on drums, but the span of these recordings also include the likes of Jimmie Smith, Charles Persip and Grady Tate on drums, and George Duvivier, Red Mitchell, Milt Hinton and Bob Cranshaw on bass. Cranshaw’s electric bass work on these sides is among his best on record, including a remarkably soulful, bubbling finger-funk outing on the Carpenters’ “Close to You.”

Remarkably enough, there is only one tune that appears twice in these delightful hours: Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me,” both takes of which appear on the same CD. One version is straight trio, one includes conga. The latter swings harder, with the conga emphasizing the triplet eighths. But what is fascinating is the way Garner builds the trio arrangement around a more foursquare approach, seeming to toy with its hard edges, to flirt coyly with his natural exuberance. Hearing these tracks helps us understand Garner as a musician very much in the moment, committed to the context that he and his fellows create.