George Shearing Solo Piano
My brief for this article was a few paragraphs about a recording I ‘cannot live without’. There are a few and around the top of the list has always been My Ship by George Shearing. I confess that I had not listened to it for some time and it was a pleasure to re-visit it – albeit on my original vinyl album (still in mint condition). It is a solo piano album, beautifully recorded in 1974 by Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer for the MPS/BASF label.
George Shearing achieved fame (and fortune) in the early 50’s with a quintet of piano, vibes, guitar, bass and drums. The slick arrangements, vibes and guitar doubling the piano lines in block chords (the so-called ‘locked-hands’ technique) created a unique ensemble and became known as the Shearing Sound. George’s solos in this setting were mostly brief but when the quintet was finally disbanded in 1978 he released numerous solo, duo and trio recordings where his full palette of influences became obvious.
Blind from birth in 1911 he took piano lessons for only four years before embarking on his professional piano-playing career. Listening to My Ship one can only marvel at the prodigious technique, silky touch and vivid imagination on display – each track revealing influences from classical to jazz (ragtime to bebop) – in a stunningly original style.
Kurt Weill’s My Ship sets the scene with quotes from Debussy’s La Cathedrale Engloutie and this atmosphere pervades the entire track with rippling arpeggios accompanying the LH theme, whole-tone passages and sparkling trills. Yesterdays is a fast, swinging stride rendition – Fats Waller influence with Art Tatum runs – and a classical quote or two, still unmistakably Shearing. Happy Days Are Here Again is a rather sombre rubato interpretation with lush harmonies and an ending dove-tailing the theme with the opening motif of A Walk in the Black Forest. When I Fall in Love is swinging jazz with a quasi, modern stride LH, Londonderry Air rubato with a lush re-harmonisation. April in Paris surprises with alberti bass, counterpoint and other classical influences.
The Entertainer is true Scott Joplin for the first section, then ‘Shearing Style’ (or locked-hands) – block chords in RH with the melody doubled in the LH. After a rubato repeat the final chorus is pure Errol Garner! Three choice standards follow – Tenderly, with a funky improvisation, How Deep is the Ocean and Autumn in New York. Greensleeves receives a startling treatment. A simple unaccompanied statement of the theme, then in Canon, then a lilting chorus which reminds me of Ravel’s Forlane. The first movement theme from ‘Rach 3’ is unobtrusively woven in, a rubato jazz chorus and climaxing with a Bach organ-like ending.
Shearing was a superb accompanist – evidenced by his many recordings with singers – and the album draws to a close with him accompanying himself on Send in the Clowns – almost like an encore after a stunning recital of virtuosic pianism and invention.
Whilst a student at the Elder Conservatorium I transcribed The Entertainer and marveled then at the imagination and especially the effortlessly smooth technique and gorgeous sound. I’m even more impressed after this listen – check it out!
Kerin Bailey – Pianist, composer and teacher
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Mr Kerin Bailey will be giving a concert in Brisbane on the 30 August 2014 and two workshops on the 31 August 2014 – one at Theme & Variations Piano Services (Newstead) and the other at Nudgee College. More information here