Old Gold and Ivory - George Shearing (Capitol, 1963/1964 – issued 1965): During the 1960s, many Capitol albums contained helpful-to-retailers “File Under” headings at the top of the record. This one dismisses itself as “Background Music” even though it is one of those fairly remarkable Shearing-with-strings-and-woodwinds records like White Satin or Black Satin issued some half a decade earlier that compromise, compel and mix jazz and classical music all at once. It is the kind of thing other records often get celebrated for – third stream, fusion, whatever. And it’s worth considering that the rightfully commendable Bill Evans Trio with Symphony Orchestra record wasn’t released until a year and a half after this record came out. This one somehow eluded celebration and Old Gold and Ivory is definitely worth celebrating. Recorded over a period of at least five sessions between late 1963 and early 1964, Old Gold and Ivory derives its title from a series of “golden” and well-known classical themes rendered here by George Shearing’s tinkling “ivories.” It’s a great idea, extremely well arranged by the pianist himself and orchestrated and conducted by Milton Raskin, who had previously conducted Shearing’s previous orchestral effort, Touch Me Softly. The program includes themes that the pianist not only studied and probably knew by heart and certainly better than most jazz players, but some he also quoted as often as possible in his popularly-considered music. These include themes by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (“None but the Lonely Heart”), Edvard Grieg (“Solveig’s Song” from Peer Gynt), Frédéric Chopin (“Prelude No. 20,” “Fantaisie Impromptu”), Manuel de Falla (“Ritual Fire Dance” from El Amor brujo), Ernesto Lecuona (“Malagueña”), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (“Scheherazade”), Cyril Scott (“Lotus Land”),Gabriel Fauré (“Pavane”) and Percy Grainger (“Country Gardens”). Everything here is wonderfully well considered and superbly executed but highlights include the percussion fiesta “Ritual Fire Dance;” “Variations on a Theme of Paganini,” containing much exciting orchestration and terrific piano work from Shearing (and a great sense of the Quintet too); and the lovely “Lotus Land.” And while it’s hard to imagine anyone having anything reasonably interesting left to say about “Malagueña” or “Country Gardens,” George Shearing succeeds here rather magnificently too. Old Gold and Ivory was issued on CD by EMI Europe as part of a two-fer with Deep Velvet, but the CD is unfortunately out of print.
Out of the Woods - The George Shearing Quintet with Woodwind Quintet (Capitol, 1963/1964 – issued 1965): This “striking study in modern music,” as Capitol snidely regards it, was recorded during two sessions, on December 26, 1963 – a session that also yielded “Malagueña” and “Ritual Fire Dance” for the Old Gold and Ivory album – and on May 25, 1964, long after Gary Burton left George Shearing’s Quintet to join Stan Getz. The second session was done at Shearing’s insistence, determined that Capitol allow the Quintet to do an album of Burton originals. This was unusual for several reasons. For one thing, Capitol discouraged originals on Shearing Quintet records and had certainly never before allowed the pianist a full album by any one composer. For another, it’s highly unusual for Gary Burton, who has never been known as much of a composer, even for his own groups, to provide so much original music to any one program. Even Shearing states in his notes that Out of the Woods is “a rather unusual one for us.” Indeed it sounds nothing like the Shearing Quintet had before or since. With so many of the 12 pieces deriving from classical sources, the inevitable comparison to John Lewis’ Third Stream style is appropriate, although the jazzier numbers (“Six-Nix-Quix-Flix,” “Doblado Samba”) recall the influence of Gary McFarland, who arranged part of a 1964 album for fellow Berklee alum Gary Burton. The group includes Shearing and Burton with John Gray on guitar, Ralph Peña or Gene Cherico on bass and Shelly Manne on drums and the album gets its punning title from the addition of woodwind players including Abe Most, Justin Gordon, Jules Jacobs and Paul Horn. While it’s terrific hearing Shearing and company break out of their usual schtick, too much of this music sounds far too academic. Burton writes as if trying to impress a college professor, not a jazz audience. His ideas are interesting enough, but only explored enough to prove some sort of compositional point such as ‘honor thy forefathers.’ There is very little jazz feeling here and far too little interesting improvisation. It’s certainly easy to understand Shearing’s fascination with the music. He often quotes Bach, Mozart and even jazz composers in performance. But too much of this seems far too contrived and, frankly, uninteresting. Shearing can be heard playing harpsichord on “Opus for Mozart” and the oriental-sounding “Lyric Ballad” while Burton plays lyre on “Lyric Ballad” and piano on (at least) “Improvisation on Fugue X” and “Dialogue for Two Pianos.” Shearing’s piano is best served by “J.S. Bop,” “Doblado Samba,” “Drum Fugue” and “Dialogue for Two Pianos” – but only briefly at best. Out of the Woods is the sort of jazz-meets-classical offering that Claude Bolling’s far more interesting Concerto For Classical Guitar and Jazz Piano is. Curiously both Shearing and Manne appear on the 1979 Angel recording of Bolling’s work to much more notable degree. Out of the Woods was reissued in 1984 on the Tall Tree label (a short-lived division of Palo Alto Records) as Bright Dimensions and credited (appropriately) to George Shearing & Gary Burton “with Shelly Manne” also billed on the cover.
Deep Velvet - George Shearing with Quintet and Woodwind Choir (Capitol, 1964): Shearing had always had great success with his romantic mood music, often telegraphed by the presence of “velvet” or “satin” in the titles. This outing, which comes nearly a full decade after Velvet Carpet, finds Shearing’s quintet surrounded by a woodwind choir arranged by the pianist and orchestrated by Bobby Hammack, Julian Lee and Milt(on) Raskin. It’s all pleasant and enjoyable, but not nearly as catatonic as some of the pianist’s orchestral strings records like Concerto For My Love had become. The winds add some welcome muscle – except during some brief and inexplicably hammy passages that flutter with cliché – that make this set a refreshing change of pace for anyone who might have started getting bored with this particular type of format. The program highlights some lovely standards, including “Here’s That Rainy Day” (which Shearing’s trio would record again in 1977 for MPS), “Sentimental Journey,” “Willow Weep for Me,” “Slowly,” “Spring Is Here” (which Shearing’s Quintet recorded once before in 1953 for MGM) and “My Heart Stood Still” (which Shearing would later record with Joe Williams). There is also an unusually high degree of lesser-known numbers, including “Passing By,” “Would You Like To Take A Walk,” Irving Berlin’s “I Used To Be Color Blind,” Leonard Feather’s “Signing Off,” orchestrators Milton Raskin and Julian Lee’s “One Love” and Benny Carter’s “Nightfall.” While the record seems somewhat out of touch with the record-buying public of the day, it does not dissuade the loveliness of the approach or the undeniable joy the pianist has in delivering it. Highlights include “Sentimental Journey” “Would You Like To Take A Walk,” “Willow Weep For Me” and “My Heart Stood Still.” Deep Velvet was issued on CD by EMI Europe as part of a two-fer with Old Gold and Ivory, but the CD is unfortunately out of print.
Latin Rendezvous - The George Shearing Quintet (Capitol, 1961-65 – issued 1965): This is the first of the Shearing Quintet’s Latin-themed albums since Mood Latino (1961) and, significantly and sadly, the last. It is little more than a collection of previously unissued Latinates that Shearing’s quintet waxed over four years: “Barandanga,” “Mambo at the Blackhawk,” “Just Goofin’” and “Tie Me Donkey” date from the April 1961 Mood Latino sessions. “Mambo Serenade,” “All Through The Night,” which Shearing concludes with a Chopin prelude, “Yours Is My Heart Alone” and “I Wished on The Moon” date from a Quintet performance featuring Gary Burton (probably) recorded the night before the February 1963 Jazz Concert album. And “More,” “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” “With Feeling” and “Quiet Nights (Corcovado)” date from a March 1965 session that produced two tracks for That Fresh Feeling!. But it all sounds remarkably cohesive and is surely a welcome respite from the many orchestral recordings Shearing had been obliged to do at the time. Latin percussionist Armando Peraza contributes four originals to the program including “Barandanga” (which he’d recorded with Mongo Santamaria in 1960 on Our Man in Havana), “Mambo Serenade,” “Tie Me Donkey” and “Mambo at the Blackhawk” – all terrifically enchanting and, not surprisingly, the album’s most festive highlights. Unfortunately, just about all of the tunes featured here, none of which of even gets to three minutes of playing time, are far too short and don’t allow for some of the energy and verve the performances generate to materialize properly. This surely won’t satisfy many jazz listeners. But it will satify fans of the Shearing Quintet that like to hear the band in this context. For my tastes, Latin Rendezvous is a joy. Even though it was probably rush released to capitalize on the brief Latin spell that swept through jazz in 1965, a trend led by the popularity of Cal Tjader, whose band was then being driven by Armando Peraza. While Latin Rendezvous has never appeared on CD, the live material featured here (which doesn’t sound live) is surprisingly not included on the Mosaic box set either.
That Fresh Feeling! - George Shearing (Capitol, 1965 – issued 1966): This peculiarly titled collection highlights “all-time Shearing favorites newly recorded by the Quintet with strings and woodwinds.” Shearing had emigrated to the United States in 1947 and formed the first George Shearing Quintet in 1949. It was at about this time that the pianist began recording for MGM records, where he initially cut most of the tunes featured here. Many of these songs introduced the British pianist to the American public in the early 1950s and became popular staples in Shearing’s riveting performances. That Fresh Feeling! revisits such Shearing favorites as “I’ll Be Around” (first waxed by Shearing in 1950 – then again in 1960 for San Francisco Scene), “The Continental” (1949), “When Your Lover Has Gone” (1950), “Don’t Blame Me” (1951) and “We’ll Be Together Again” (1951) – all of which Shearing waxed again for his superb 1975 MPS “Quintet + Amigos” album Continental Experience. Also featured here is “Changing with the Times” (1950), “The Breeze and I” (1951), “Pick Yourself Up” (1950 – and later with Nat King Cole, 1961), “For You” (1950 – and again in 1989 on the pianist’s solo album Piano) and two never-before recorded Shearing originals, “Waltz for Sheba” and “Measure for Leisure.” It’s a noble and genuinely engaging program with Shearing back in the saddle again and at the very top of his game on such pieces as “The Continental,” “Changing with the Times,” “The Breeze and I” and “Pick Yourself Up.” One senses Shearing’s true love of this music – not that he’s fulufilling some sort of contractual obligation – and the energy he displays throughout is contagious. Surprisingly, though, two of Shearing’s most notable early successes, “September in the Rain” and his jazz standard “Lullaby of Birdland,” are not part of this program. But That Fresh Feeling! is probably one of the best quintet-with-strings records George Shearing ever made – it swings with the passion Shearing always delivered in concert and is just as pretty as any of the Quintet’s albums were meant to be. That Fresh Feeling! has not yet been issued on CD.
Continue to Shearing in the Sixties – Part 5