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Erroll Garner: The Complete Concert by the Sea

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Concert by the Sea, the recording of Erroll Garner’s Sept. 19, 1955, performance in Carmel, Calif., immediately became and remains one of the best-selling albums in jazz. But one always suspected that Garner’s trio played more music that day than the 41 minutes committed to record. The initial CD reissue, a slapdash job that came out in 1987, was serviceable but muddy. Now, finally, 60 years after that historic concert, we get what is purported to be the concert in its entirety, along with improved fidelity via a new mastering.

The amount of music has doubled. Eleven of the 22 tunes were previously unreleased, and announcements and an interview with the trio are included in the three-CD The Complete Concert by the Sea. (The full concert program, as it occurred, unfolds over the first two discs; the third presents the previously released 11 songs in the order they appeared on the original Concert by the Sea.)

Garner’s classy, classical-infused style and joyful approach made him one of the most popular pianists of his day. He was a unique figure, too: Though he didn’t read music he was a technical marvel, able to operate his hands independently of one another, often playing two melodic lines, a tricky task for even the most accomplished pianists. Yet while he had no trouble winning audiences, he didn’t win over every critic. Unlike contemporaries such as Thelonious Monk, Ahmad Jamal and Bill Evans, Garner had zero tolerance for silence, filling every space with note upon note. Whereas the beboppers played single-note runs with the right hand, he used fancy chords on the melodies. In other words, Garner was a practitioner, not a visionary or innovator. Still, there is no disputing his dazzling dexterity or his role in maintaining jazz’s status as a popular American music in the R&B and rock-and-roll eras.

With all that in mind, there’s no argument that The Complete Concert by the Sea is anything but perfect. Garner is ebullient, and bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Denzil Best bring their A game. Most JazzTimes readers have heard Concert by the Sea, so there’s little point in treading that ground. The 11 new selections, however, show that whittling the concert by half must have been a herculean chore 60 years ago. Every tune is a gem. Garner gives “Night and Day” a regal solo and a shuffling rhythm driven by Best’s brush work and Calhoun’s steady bass. “The Nearness of You,” taken slowly and delicately, acquires a glossy sheen thanks to Garner’s heavy use of trills, as does the trio’s majestic treatment of “Laura.” “Lullaby of Birdland,” always a happy tune, bounces along with more effervescence than ever (you can hear Garner smiling); same with “‘S Wonderful,” which chugs along as fast as you’ve ever heard it. “Caravan” gets the most inventive treatment, Garner’s left hand serving up unexpected chords and a fresh rhythm while his right toys just enough with the melody and timing to make it his own.

Originally Published