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A Perpetual State of Grace: Erroll Garner

Erroll Garner & Christian Sands

The passage of time has the tendency to render even the most superbly talented artists mute. Tastes change, fashions fall out of vogue, and our attention gradually becomes redirected. But on rare occasions, a resurgence of interest can coalesce around an individual whose stylish execution is matched by their technical prowess and the breadth of their perpetual influence on subsequent generations of artists.

An ongoing effort to acquaint contemporary listeners with the work of Erroll Garner, the dynamic pianist and composer whose playing was marked by an energy and ebullience that enabled him to cultivate credibility with jazz fans and main stream audiences alike, continues to gain traction as the release date of a brilliant but long forgotten concert performance approaches.

Although the notion of “cross-over” appeal was not unique to Garner’s career (Nat Cole and Oscar Peterson were contemporaries of his who were top-flight piano players, and both earned considerable popular success), Erroll Garner’s playing maintained the deeply personal expression, expository brilliance, and spontaneity that were his hallmarks across the span of his career.

Completely self-taught and unquestionably virtuosic, Garner was born in Pittsburgh in 1921 and arrived on the New York jazz scene in 1944. It was here that the pianist’s prodigious talents would be recognized by a broad swath of listeners that included some of the period’s musical eminences (Charlie Parker’s 1947 recording of “Cool Blues” showcased a young Garner in full flight, his trademark technique of playing just behind the beat with his right hand already evident).

It was no surprise that by the mid-1950’s Erroll Garner had become an in-demand recording artist and live performer whose long time manager, Martha Glaser, deftly secured high profile engagements and financially favorable contracts for the pianist.

And it is from one such engagement – a late night concert at Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebow, recorded in November, 1964 – that Octave Music/Mack Avenue Records’ intriguing and revelatory new release, Erroll Garner "Nightconcert", is taken. The evening’s set list includes unique interpretations of standards written by luminary composers associated with the Great American Songbook (Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, Harold Arlen), plus an original Garner song, “That Amsterdam Swing”, that was debuted that night.

Bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Kelly Martin accompany Garner on the date, and the group’s nimble, cohesive execution manifest the depth of listening that took place between the musicians.

“Nightconcert” marks the latest release of material that has come from the Erroll Garner Archive, a repository dedicated to the life and work of the esteemed pianist and composer, and housed at The University of Pittsburg. According to Susan Rosenberg, Director of The Erroll Garner Jazz Project and “Nightconcert’s” executive producer, the collection includes some 3,000 reel-to-reel tapes which contain 7,000 songs, as well as sheet music, contracts, correspondences, ephemera, and 7,000 photographs.

Two other recent releases were culled from the wealth of material found in the Garner Archive. “The Complete Concert By The Sea” (2015), a remastering of the renowned 1955 Erroll Garner performance that was recorded in Carmel, California, was produced by Steve Rosenthal and the inimitable pianist-composer-educator Geri Allen, who passed away last year. “Ready Take One” (2017), an album of Garner’s until-then-unreleased studio recordings, was produced by Rosenthal, Allen, and Peter Lockhart.

Geri Allen, whose connection to Garner’s home city was further cemented by the fact that she served as the Director of the Jazz Studies Program at The University of Pittsburg, was instrumental in putting together a cohort of exceptional musicians to pay tribute to Garner’s original “Concert By The Sea” recording on the sixtieth anniversary of the project’s original release. The tribute concert featured Allen, as well as Jason Moran and Christian Sands on piano, Russell Malone on guitar, Darek Oles on bass, and Victor Lewis on drums.

The untimely passing of Geri Allen saw young piano virtuoso Christian Sands tapped for the role of Senior Advisor to The Erroll Garner Jazz Project. Sands’ soulful, polished playing and bountiful, unbridled enthusiasm are unmistakably analogous to similar traits evidenced by Garner. The two pianists are also kindred spirits in that both are particularly adept live performers.

Christian Sands’ High Wire Trio, featuring Ulysses Owens, Jr. on drums and Luques Curtis on bass, focuses on Erroll Garner’s music. The band’s connection to Garner’s work is evidenced not only by their choice of repertoire, but through the depth of their commitment to high levels execution and interplay.

Sands recently confided that there have been some discoveries of even more Erroll Garner material that was until now unaccounted for. He declined to give details, but offered his assurance that the newly found trove was undoubtedly significant and worthy of exploration.

See the High Wire Trio featuring Christian Sands perform live Friday June 29th at Scullers Jazz Club

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