Languishing on acetate for nearly 50 years, this previously unreleased cache of Erroll Garner recordings is a sort of Concert by the Studio, if you will, with commentary interposed. Half the material comes from a Chicago studio in late November 1967, with the rest from NYC in October 1969 and a trio of 1971 sessions, plus a straggler from Paris in spring 1969. So we’re talking late-period Garner, when one might have thought he had ditched the innovating and was glad-handing on the touring circuit, a notion this set quickly disabuses. Friend and manager Martha Glaser’s voice is heard throughout, and the running joke is that Garner and his configurations of bandmates-Jimmy Smith or Joe Cocuzzo on drums, Ernest McCarty Jr., Ike Isaacs, George Duvivier or Larry Gales on bass-rarely needed more than one take to nail down a number.
Little wonder given how on fire they are, and whatever mistakes occur tend to be a case of the musicians overexciting themselves with the obvious good humor in the air. The opening “High Wire,” from December 1971, is a Garner original, featuring a calm, well-configured introduction that is a model of musical design, all clear lines and angles. We expect something stately to follow, and instead the song chugs into a roiling rumba-like figure, with Garner playing impossibly virtuosic patterns that exchange one shape for another and cascade from the top to the bottom of the song. There’s an Art Tatum-esque effect, but the music never feels as resolutely jazzy as it does with Tatum. Perhaps it’s the wisp of proto-funk that’s detectable, but Garner has a way of being both entirely of jazz and not of jazz at all, his own distinct mélange.
“I Want to Be Happy,” from six months prior, is a jaunty surge against melancholia, with Glaser unable to refrain from pushing the intercom button and shouting “More!” after its conclusion. A December 1971 cover of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” has some wonderful leading rolls from Smith at his kit, and a snaky mid-song bridge section finds Garner in Monk mode, delving into some minimalist single-note sound painting. Not the Erroll we expect.
A November 1967 take of Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” is far poppier, as befitting the well-known hit, but bluesy and wistful. The Garner original “Back to You,” from the following day, is a lush dream of unfurling blues and indigos crashing like spent waves, very much like Garner’s 1944 composition “Gaslight.” This is the revelation cut of the set, but don’t overlook the allure of the covers. “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You),” long associated with Fats Waller, one of the highlights from the 1967 run, is all hangdog sweetness. Then there’s Garner’s own “Misty,” from Paris in May 1969, remade anew. There’s more ebullience in this version than in the more famous ones, a joy sourced, one imagines, from knowing you need never repeat what has already been done when you’re free to begin again instead.