A case could be made that George Shearing was the godfather of “smooth jazz.” From the mid-1950s ‘til the dawn of the Beatles era, he turned out a series of popular albums featuring his jazz quintet with orchestral accompaniment that brought the blind London-born pianist to the upper reaches of the album charts. His 1957 LP, Black Satin, was marketed as a romantic aid in the seduction of beautiful women, and the cover to 1960’s White Satin (Shearing’s best seller) featured a sexy redhead in an open-front white satin dress and a “come see me, big boy” look.
Though he may be best remembered by folks of a certain age for those luxuriant, sensual recordings, George Shearing was one heck of a player, equally at home in bebop and Latin settings as he was in reharmonizing a beautiful ballad or accompanying a great singer like Nat King Cole or Mel Torme. Friday night, John Toomey headlines a Jazz on Granby tribute to the legendary piano man at the Roper Performing Arts Center.
“Probably the thing that people think of first,” Toomey told me just before Christmas, “is his locked hands technique. What that really means is that when he would solo or play melodies, instead of playing a single note solo or melody in his right hand, it would have a much thicker sound because he would play chords underneath every single note. So it would sound very full and very lush harmonically.
“One of the first people to approach that was Milt Buckner [with Lionel Hampton in the ‘40s]. George Shearing really brought it out into the spotlight. Technically, it has to do with using a ‘drop two’ voicing---in your right hand, you would play what we call a close position chord underneath the melody note; then you would drop down the second note of that chord and play that in your left hand. So the left hand ends up shadowing one line of the chord shapes that are occurring in the right hand, usually about a tenth below (an octave and a third). It’s not that easy to do. You have to think very quickly to pull it off.
“It’s like playing in a sort of arranging style off the top of your head. That is certainly one key feature of George Shearing. But I would have to say the other has to do with that sound of using either the vibes or the guitar or both along with the piano to get a beautiful rich sound, especially when they would play melodies together.
“A lot of times what would happen is the guitar and vibes would be unison, and then the piano with that locked-hands style would fill out all the harmony. So basically you would have three people playing the shapes together. The blend of the vibes with the piano and/or the guitar gives it a beautiful, subtle sound.”
Shearing wrote one of the all-time standards of the jazz repertoire, “Lullaby of Birdland.” On his last disc five years ago, Back to Birdland, he joked that he had “been credited with writing some 300 songs, 299 of which enjoyed a rather bumpy ride from relative obscurity to total oblivion.” But all it takes is one classic to put you on the map, and “Lullaby” certainly did that, though it began life as a radio show theme song.
“In 1952,” he wrote in the liner notes of that live CD, “I was approached by the owners of Birdland to write a theme song for a nightly six-hour disk jockey show that they were sponsoring…I went home to my house in Old Tappan, New Jersey and, while eating a steak in my dining room, the tune came into my head, and I finished writing it in ten minutes.”
As a superb musician and arranger himself, John Toomey is excited about the opportunity this concert presents. In preparing for the show, he’s developed an even deeper appreciation of Shearing’s talents:
“The other thing that comes to mind with George Shearing is that he’s a great arranger. He’s very subtle, but it’s got a lot of harmonic content. I’ve been transcribing some of his arrangements for this concert, and something like ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ that I’ve been playing for many years…that was difficult to transcribe because when I really listened to it, I heard all of these subtle things that he was doing that add to the beauty of it.
“It’s almost like chamber music. It reminds me a little bit of the Modern Jazz Quartet, the attentive, intellectual approach to presenting those tunes---Very nice stuff.”
On Friday night, Toomey will cover a wide swath of material in the Shearing style with his regular rhythm section, Jimmy Masters on bass and Howard Curtis on drums, and a very special guest, vibraphonist Joe Locke. Locke, who came to ODU last spring for a weeklong residency, is sitting on top of the jazz world these days---literally. His new CD, Rev-elation, a tribute to vibesman Milt Jackson that was recorded the week before his visit here in April, has been #1 on the JazzWeek chart for the last month. His varied discography and busy schedule have garnered him accolades as the best post-Jackson vibist.
Former big band vocalist Lynn Roberts is also on the bill, representing the many fine singers with whom Shearing worked. Jazz on Granby regulars will remember her for her contributions to last season’s Benny Goodman remembrance with Ken Peplowski.
John Toomey himself is sounding better than ever. His weekly gig at Enrico’s has kept his chops up and given him the opportunity to explore an ever widening pianistic palette. And he’s staying busy at Old Dominion, teaching six classes and starting up a jazz choir there. I asked him what we could expect to hear at the Roper.
“It’s easy to do because he covers the gamut quite a bit,” he replied. “His thing was to take a standard tune and put the Shearing touch on it. So, it’s not that hard to choose material because there were so many different tunes that he recorded.
“I know that we’re definitely going to play one piece that was written by Joe specifically for piano and vibes to sort of showcase that sound. It’s really a tribute to George Shearing because he was one of the key people who put together that sound and pointed out to people how nicely it goes together.”
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