Saturday, December 11, 2010

Shearing in the Sixties - Part 5

Here & Now - The George Shearing Quintet with String Choir (Capitol, 1965): Following Shearing Bossa Nova, Here & Now is only the second of Shearing’s 1960s albums that reveals itself to be of its time. As the title trumpets, this is the quintet (with strings, the Quintet’s first strings record since 1963’s Touch Me Softly) covering then-recent “standards” from such composers as Henry Mancini (“Days of Wine and Roses,” “Dear Heart,” “Mr. Lucky”), Antonio Carlos Jobim (“The Girl From Ipanema”), Anthony Newley (“Who Can I Turn To,” “What Kind of Fool Am I” – which Shearing performed solo on his 1972 album Music to Hear), Jules Styne (“People”), Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn (“Call Me Irresponsible”), Bert Kaempfert (“Love”) and former Quintet member Toots Thielmans (“Bluesette”). Shearing again provides the arrangements, orchestrated by Julian Lee, for a larger-than-usual string section of twelve violins, four cellos and four violas. While it’s nice to hear the pianist tackling some more contemporary material than usual and give these now quite-well known songs the Shearing treatment, the arrangements are surprisingly dull and too frequently syrupy. For example, it’s simply amazing how Shearing drains just about all of the jazz juice out of the three Mancini pieces presented here. The effect is more like Percy Faith or Andre Kostelanetz (poorly) attempting to mimic the Shearing Quintet rather than Shearing trying to swing his way through these mostly strong melodies. Shearing’s occasional and always wonderful pianism comes to the fore on the more Quintet-sounding takes of “Love,” “The Girl from Ipanema,” the Andy Williams hit “Almost There” and, of course, the delightful but far too brief “Bluesette.” Here & Now was issued on CD in 2002 by EMI Europe as part of a two-fer with New Look!, but the CD is unfortunately out of print.

New Look! - George Shearing (Capitol, 1966 – issued 1967): The second of George Shearing’s four “today’s sounds” records of the 1960s, New Look! features “the Quintet and the new sounds of his multi-colored orchestra.” The program covers the lighter side of the then-contemporary pop spectrum including The Beatles’ “Yesterday”(which the pianist would cover again on his 1972 album The George Shearing Quartet) and “Michelle” as well as “On A Clear Day You Can See Forever,” “Strangers in the Night,” “You’re Gonna Hear From Me,” “Call Me,” “The Shadow Of Your Smile,” “What The World Needs Now Is Love” and “Once In A Lifetime.” Also included here are two songs co-written by lyricist Johnny Mercer: Gene Di Novi’s “Have Heart,” covered by Nancy Wilson on her 1965 album A Touch of Today, and Shearing’s own delightfully-conceived “Too Good To Be True.” Shearing’s arrangements for strings, woodwinds and brass (orchestrated again by Julian Lee) are appealingly imaginative and a bit brassier here than usual but pleasantly perkier than what was presented on Here & Now. The program, which is presented as if to bring the music into jazz (rather than dumb it down for the evermore disinterested romantic-moods crowd), recalls something of Neal Hefti’s sparkling and swinging film scores of the period. Shearing stumbles when he tries to add typical classical flourishes to such travesties as “You’re Gonna Hear From Me” and “Once In A Lifetime,” But he truly champions some inventive jazz inspiration on such swinging surprises as “On A Clear Day You Can See Forever,” “Yesterday,” “The Shadow of Your Smile” (where he adds a tastefully considered refrain on harpsichord) and “What The World Needs Now Is Love.” The Quintet sound occasionally rears its pleasant little head, but only in a “should be seen and not heard” sort of way. It’s a shame, because George Shearing might have been on to something here. New Look! was issued on CD in 2002 by EMI Europe as part of a two-fer with Here & Now, but the CD is unfortunately out of print.

Shearing Today! - The George Shearing Quintet (Capitol, 1968): Here, The George Shearing Quintet meets the day’s industry-perceived conceits of rock ‘n’ roll (a story in itself!), killing not only a decently conceived idea (the Shearing Quintet) but laying to rest something that had probably long outlived its usefulness. Shearing Today! is a bit of a shock, mixing the Quintet’s pop melody statements with (pop) rock-ish electric guitars, electric bass (!), a strings section and a surprisingly out-of-kilter group of male and female vocalists (the piano is mic’ed rather strangely here for a Quintet recording too). The program includes tuneful radio favorites of the day like “Goin’ Out of My Head,” “A Time For Love,” “I Say A Little Prayer,” “Don’t Sleep In The Subway, “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” “Love is Blue,” “Theme from ‘Valley of the Dolls’” and “Never My Love.” But there is a stilted quality to all of it. The arrangements have a nagging tick-tock quality that evinces someone’s dislike for this material. The otherwise beautiful melodies of “Love is Blue” and “Never My Love” seem to suffer most with stringent performances that ooze with a bizarre resentment. Other than Shearing’s Percy Faith-like “Morse Mode,” only the presence of former Quintet vibist Emil Richards’ on these sessions is notable for any reason.

The Fool on the Hill - George Shearing (Capitol, 1968-69 – issued 1969): After nearly 15 years, pianist George Shearing waxed his final album for Capitol Records in 1969 and came up with as much of a winning document of its time as his 1955 Capitol debut, The Shearing Spell, was in its day. The thing is, though, hardly anyone knows about this fantastic record. The “Latin Stylings” here are more appropriately Brazilian than the south-of-the-Border approach of the 1955 album. But Shearing was long destined to make an album like this and, as expected, he is simply spectacular. More disappointingly, he didn’t make more records like this. The Fool on the Hill is, if anything, not only a successful follow-up to 1962’s Shearing Bossa Nova, it is also one of the pianist’s finest outings for the label. Here, the pianist covers such notable Bossa Nova gems as “The Gentle Rain,” “Wave,” “Meditation” and “Somewhere in the Hills (Favela)” and adds some Brazilian flavor to the Cole Porter classics “Easy to Love” and “I Concentrate on You” and such pop favorites as “Promises, Promises,” “A Man And A Woman” and The Beatles’ title track. The pianist also offers his own clever little Bossa Nova in his own “Simple Sideman,” not only confirming his ever-clever use of wordplay but his always clever musical panache. For the most part, Shearing is perfectly featured in a quartet (!) that features the pianist with an unnamed acoustic guitarist, bassist and drummer. Four tracks (“The Fool on the Hill,” “Promises, Promises,” “The Gentle Rain” and “A Man and a Woman”) rekindle the Shearing Quintet with vibes and Latin percussion for an effect that is positively warm and glowing as well as sensible and appropriately romantic. One senses there was much more music from these sessions. Hopefully one day someone will look into it all and share the lovely music featured here and any other secret little gems Shearing may have concocted for this extraordinarily fine release. Despite its odd and oddly misleading title, The Fool on the Hill is one of George Shearing’s best albums and deserves not only more attention but warrants attentive rediscovery. This record is truly outstanding.

George Shearing left Capitol in 1969 (whether it was his decision or Capitol’s, Shearing felt the label wasn’t doing enough to promote his music) and formed his own mail-order label, Sheba. A handful of records were released on the Sheba label. But these little-known records actually looked and felt more like bootlegs, even though they featured Shearing recorded exceedingly well – under his own direction, for the first time in his career – in a variety of contexts. Seven Sheba albums were issued between 1970 and 1973.

These albums featured Shearing a little differently than he had been featured at Capitol and included Shearing playing solo (1970’s Out of this World - first issued in 1971 - and 1972’s Music to Hear), in a trio (1972’s The George Shearing Trio), in a quartet with organ (!) (1972’s The George Shearing Quartet and 1973’s GAS), reprising the quintet (1972’s As Requested) and, most famously, paired with singer Joe Williams (1971’s The Heart and Soul of Joe Williams and George Shearing). All of these were rescued from obscurity by the Koch label in the earlier part of this decade for CD.

Shearing then went onto to wax some magnificent work for MPS (nine albums between 1974 and 1979: Shearing once said of MPS that he was delighted to be with a label that “puts music before money”), Concord (1979-89, including several Grammy Award winners with Mel Tormé) and Telarc (1992-2000), where among other things, he re-convened his Quintet for several records after many, many years.

George Shearing published an autobiography in 2004 (Lullaby of Birdland) and issued a lovely trio disc, Like Fine Wine in 2005 but, due to health reasons, has since retired altogether from music. There is a great wealth of great Shearing music out there. So here’s hoping that the great bounty of Shearing’s recordings will help keep this wonderful musical legacy alive forever.


Anonymous said...

Any idea where to download "Shearing Today!"? I burned a CD from an old album copy but a nice rip of this would make an old Shearing fan very happy! Thoughts??

JC said...

Thanks for this great primer on the late Sir George. It's really helped me find the Shearing music I like best.

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