I’ve been listening to Erroll Garner for some inexplicable reason (not that the desire to listen to him needs explaining!). Younger readers may not recognize Garner’s name, or know him solely as the composer of “Misty,” but people of a certain age (i.e., mine) will at the very least remember his many TV appearances, if only because he was so short that he had to sit on a Manhattan phone book placed atop his piano bench in order to bear down on the keyboard with sufficient comfort.
Garner was hugely popular in the second half of his life, and because of that, many critics failed to take him seriously. I once wrote a piece for the New York Times that was intended to squelch this foolish notion:
In jazz as in the other arts, worldly success can be a decidedly mixed blessing. As the critic Max Harrison has pointed out, “People do not object to artists deserving success–only to their getting it.” The bigger the triumph, the snarkier the reaction, at least among those who mistakenly believe there is an inverse relationship between accessibility and quality. From Louis Armstrong to Diana Krall, talented musicians lucky enough to crack the code of popular taste without compromising their art in the process have invariably found themselves fending off flying brickbats. Some are flung by prissy colleagues who think jazz should be packaged in plain brown wrappers, others by critics who review reputations instead of music….
Garner was a self-taught musician who could not read music. (Asked why he never bothered to learn, he famously retorted, “Hell, man, nobody can hear you read.”) Though he worked almost exclusively with trios, his irresistibly buoyant playing had a near-orchestral feel. At medium and fast tempos, he brusquely “strummed” close-clipped chords with his left hand–four to a bar, just like the rhythm guitarist in a swing band–while his right hand, which often lagged tantalizingly behind the beat, alternated between bustling single-note lines and delectably squashy chordal riffs….
One of Garner’s albums was called The Most Happy Piano, and that sums him up very nicely. As Joseph Epstein wrote of H.L. Mencken, “He achieves his effect through the magical transfer of joie de vivre.” You simply cannot listen to his best recordings without breaking out in an ear-to-ear grin. What’s more, Garner was by all accounts as likable as the music he made. As George Avakian, his producer at Columbia, recalled, “He was really like a pixie or an elf. When you split with Erroll at the end of an evening you left with a happy smile and a good feeling. No worries at all. Off to bed feeling great. That’s what Erroll did for people.”
The trouble is that Garner recorded extensively and indiscriminately throughout much of his long career (he died in 1977). Many of his early records, which are now out of copyright and are constantly being reissued on fly-by-night European labels, fail to do him justice, and at least as many of the later ones are of lesser interest than the performances he recorded between 1950, when he signed with Columbia Records, and the mid-Sixties, when his distinctive style started to harden into mannerism. Alas, a comprehensive Garner-on-CD series on Columbia (now Sony) was aborted fifteen years ago after just two volumes, and the bulk of his recorded legacy has yet to be reissued systematically.
Someday–I hope–Sony will put out a carefully chosen two- or three-disc collection of Garner’s best Columbia recordings. (It damn well better include his stupendous eight-minute-long 1956 version of “The Man I Love,” which at present is available only as part of an obscure multiple-artist anthology called Gershwin Jazz that I only found out about last week.) Until then, I suggest you give a listen to Erroll Garner’s Finest Hour, a single-disc greatest-hits compilation from Verve (it contains “Misty”), and This Is Jazz: Erroll Garner, a fifteen-track Columbia sampler.
On second thought, just start with This Is Jazz, which contains the first two Garner recordings I ever heard, “It’s the Talk of the Town” and the 1951 remake of “Laura,” his first hit single. If it doesn’t ring your bell, I suggest you enter psychotherapy at once–you’re seriously depressed.