Considering Erroll Garner the Composer, with An Exclusive Premiere From 'Nightconcert'

Jun 13, 2018

Quick, hum a few bars of an original composition by Erroll Garner — other than “Misty.”

Serious Garner-philes surely know the impish “Afternoon of an Elf,” the bittersweet ballads “Solitaire” and “Gaslight,” and a few others. But I’d wager that most jazz fans would draw a blank. The pianist’s populist versions of standards got most of the bandwidth, and the overwhelming fame of “Misty” dominated whatever attention was left for his originals. Even those aware of Garner’s healthy catalog would likely be stunned to learn just how prolific he was as a composer.

How large is Garner’s corpus? The Erroll Garner Jazz Project, spearheaded by the pianist’s estate, reports that 196 of his songs have been published and issued on recordings. But that number comprises only half of Garner’s total output as a composer; there are roughly 200 unpublished originals, recorded but not yet released, in the Garner archive at the University of Pittsburgh.

The newest discovery — “That Amsterdam Swing,” a previously unissued blues-with-a-bridge with a modernist edge — is one of three appealing Garner compositions on Nightconcert, an album due out on Mack Avenue on July 13. One of the others is a languorous ballad called “No More Shadows,” which has its premiere here.

It’s a pleasant tune with a warmhearted melody — and while it lacks the inspired spark of Garner’s most memorable creations, the song has an intriguingly circuitous history.

Martha Glaser, Garner’s savvy manager and protector, was always on the lookout for another “Misty.” She saw this tune as a hopeful contender, and commissioned lyrics in the early-to-mid ‘60s.

They must have been poorly received, because by the early ‘70s there was a second set of lyrics by Edward Heyman, a pro best known for his work on “Body and Soul,” “When I Fall in Love,” “I Cover the Waterfront” and “Blame it On My Youth.” Heyman’s lyrics, which appears in The Erroll Garner Songbook Vol. 2, published by Cherry Lane Music in 1987, are not his finest hour:

No more shadows

No more of hopeless dreams at night

Time for sunshine

Time to see a ray of light

This may be one reason why no singer ever released a version of the song. (The Garner archive has an early demo of the first set of lyrics, sung by an unidentified male singer, and a 1973 tape of the second set, recorded by Teddi King.)

Garner introduced the ballad as an instrumental called “Shadows,” on the 1961 LP Close Up in Swing (ABC Paramount). A live performance bearing the title “No More Shadows” was captured in London on video by the BBC, around the time of the Amsterdam concert.

But Garner makes the most persuasive case for the song on Nightconcert. The earlier versions sound overly starched and bland in comparison; in Amsterdam he opens with a free-associative introduction that even by Garner standards heads into whimsical harmonic territory. Finally, after 65 seconds, he settles into the tune, and the rest is a bit routine. The playing here offers a catalog of Garner tropes: tremolos, Lisztian runs, harp-like arpeggios, left-hand quarter notes, right-hand melodies carried in chords phrased behind the beat.

A vivacious concert recording from November 1964, Nightconcert captures an inspired Garner leading his trio with bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Kelly Martin in a midnight concert at the Royal Concertgebouw. (The late start was due to a classical concert earlier in the evening.)

It’s the third recording issued under the supervision of Garner’s estate and its Octave Music imprint since the Erroll Garner Jazz Project launched in 2015, with The Complete Concert By the Sea. The following year saw the arrival of Ready Take One, a compilation of studio tracks from 1967-71, many of them previously unissued. (Both of those albums were released on Sony Legacy.)

Of the 16 tracks on Nightconcert, eight have never been issued in any form. The others were released in the mid-‘60s on Philips in Europe and Australia, but with Garner’s rhapsodic introductions heavily edited. And as anyone familiar with Garner’s playing knows, those spontaneous leaps into the unknown contain some of his most astounding improvising. You never know what death-defying aerial twists and turns he’s going to try or how the hell he managed to stick the landing.

A good example of Garner’s approach can be found on the version of “On Green Dolphin Street” from Nightconcert.

Quirky parallel chords ascend the scale during the opening gambit, heading somewhere in a hurry. But where? He pauses for a look around, likes what he sees and explores the enigmatic landscape. A rising arpeggio at 28 seconds suggests the pianist’s eyebrows going up. Then four quick steps up and — bam! — the tune starts as if shot from a cannon. A dissonant interlude kicks of the piano solo, and Garner roars through his choruses with a splashy attack, dramatic dynamics and wild flights of fancy. (Dig the rumba-beat passages!) Somehow the disparate ideas cohere into unified whole.

An Underrated Composer

I wouldn’t call Garner a major composer, but I would call him an underrated one. His most inventive pieces explore a diverse pool of melodic, rhythmic and harmonic ideas and open a window on nuanced emotional states, beyond the sheer ebullience and dreamy romanticism for which he’s best known.

His songs aren’t especially complicated, typically relying on standard 12- and 32-bar forms. While some swingers and blues are cut from perfunctory riffs, and some slow numbers slip into gauzy sentimentality, songs like “Misty” (1954) and “Gaslight” (1944) strip away the filigree in favor of straightforward melodies and efficacious harmonies that land with the sureness of Cupid’s arrow. (The chord changes of “Misty” appear largely borrowed from Billy Eckstine’s “I Want to Talk About You,” which debuted in 1944, save some differences in the bridge.)

Garner, who famously did not read music, improvised a great many pieces in the studio. “Turquoise” (1949), a chromatically enriched slow blues, introduces itself with a brief written figure, before Garner solos spontaneously. Yet the effortless flow, internal melodic rhyme, harmonic signposts, dynamics and a deep strain of melancholia create a satisfying gestalt — a masterpiece by midnight, evocative of an Ellington mood piece.

Some of Garner’s most alluring pieces, like his best solos, deliver clever feints and parries. These unexpected turns misdirect attention, suspend animation or disguise the form. The lines between composition, arrangement and improvisation can blur in ways that suggest an aesthetic kinship with Ahmad Jamal — perhaps a surprising notion, until you remember that both pianists were born in Pittsburgh, seven years apart, and Garner was one of Jamal’s major influences.

Recorded for Mercury in 1955, “Afternoon of an Elf” is a tour de force of formal ingenuity. The core of the composition is a 32-bar A-A-B-A tune in A-flat with a charming melody decorated with jaunty triplets and to-the-moon upward leaps of a minor tenth. But preceding the tune is an expansive introduction that moves from a fanfare into an impressionistic mist created by an E-flat pedal and Debussy-like suspensions. As Garner glides into the tune, his left-hand dotted-quarter rhythms and syncopations suggest a polyrhythmic triple meter swirl inside the basic 4/4 swing that sometimes hides the beat.

Garner takes two laps through the 32-bar form, staying in touch with the melody, even as his left hand falls into stride rhythm and his right hand wanders. At the end of the second chorus, he turns another corner into a 10-bar tag that ends with a return to the E-flat pedal. Now the fun really begins: Garner wings through a third chorus — keeping the melody still in sight — but he skips the tag in favor of returning to the bridge and another half chorus. Then he launches into a massive coda worthy of Beethoven in which he synthesizes all the previous material and even includes — à la Jamal — false endings. It’s as confounding and irresistible as the magic of a master illusionist, and just as delightful.

“No More Shadows,” as heard on Nightconcert, doesn’t contain this level of ingenuity — but it’s still a welcome entry in the Garner canon. It also serves to remind us: There’s a wealth of his compositions that merit a second look, and many others in the archive still waiting to be liberated.

Nightconcert will be available on Mack Avenue on July 13; preorder here.

Mark Stryker is a longtime jazz and classical music critic and culture reporter in Detroit.  His book Made in Detroit: Jazz from the Motor City will be published in summer 2019 by the University of Michigan Press.