The Shearing Sound Revived

Riding on the popularity of its late mentor, a new jazz group’s low profile may be about to get higher. A year or so before he died early this year, pianist George Shearing gave his blessing to vibraharpist Charlie Shoemake’s idea of forming a living tribute to Shearing’s quintet, for decades one of the most successful of all small jazz bands. The resulting combo, featuring Shoemake and other veterans of the Shearing quintet, has been playing concerts, clubs, festivals and jazz parties in California and is planning a tour. They will make a foray into the Pacific Northwest early next year and, if audience attendance and reaction is favorable, develop a series of bookings across the country.

The other members of the group, named The Sounds of Shearing, are guitarist Ron Anthony, drummer Colin Bailey, bassist Luther Hughes, and on Shearing’s piano bench the young Los Angeles veteran Joe Bagg. Like Shoemake, Anthony and Bailey toured and recorded extensively with Shearing in the 1960s and 70s. Hughes, one of the busiest bassists on the west coast, leads the band called The Cannonball Coltrane Project.

The deceptive simplicity of the Shearing sound was largely built around unison lines played by guitar and vibes and undergirded by the harmonic complexities of Shearing’s piano. “I had great admiration for him,” Shoemake told me following Shearing’s death. “Harmonically, I don’t think that he had any peers; he was as brilliant as anybody I ever met. His touch and his voicings and his chord substitutions on songs were from the heavens. Bill Evans, of course, was very influenced by way he used block chords. Bill very openly admitted that he’d learned a lot of that from Shearing. With George, I went from being an anonymous studio musician to someone sort of well known as a jazz vibes player. All the guys who played for him loved him.”

Here are Shoemake, Anthony, Bagg, Hughes and Bailey—The Sounds of Shearing—at The Hamlet in Cambria, California, with one of the best-known of Shearing’s string of hits from the days when jazz hits still happened.

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  1. Terence Smith says

    What a worthy endeavor! On the LP notes to Jazz Moments, George said that “nobody ever took Art Tatum’s place”, and likewise nobody could replace bassist Israel Crosby. Well, a lot of us have noticed that no one can replace George Shearing, who proved again and again that the very best in music can be popular and immediately accessible. But it takes a lifetime to appreciate the depth of George Shearing, lying beneath his instantly likeable and inviting presentation. Which is sometimes dismissed as merely the very best in elevator music! Bravo to Shoemake and Company for their good works and taste. If you ask your readers to submit their favorite Shearing albums, I’ll bet you would get hundreds of different answers, all arguably the “best”. Thousands of years from now, the decision to “Knight” Goeorge Shearing just might be considered one of the best made by the British Empire!

  2. says

    In his last 30 years or so, George’s bandmen were mostly Toronto players, and Don Thompson (who must hold a record of some sort, having played bass, vibes AND piano with George) tells me he’ll be playing a GS Tribute concert early in 2012 at the Old Mill in Toronto. He’ll be joined by Shearing vets Neil Swainson on bass and Reg Schwager on guitar, with stalwart drummer Terry Clarke and remarkable pianist Bernie Senensky.

    I can guarantee you THEY will be able to play the intro to “East Of The Sun”…

    George used other Canadian vibists, too, of course, notably Hagood Hardy and Warren Chiasson. Mayhaps he had a soft spot for musicians from the Colonies.

  3. says

    The Shearing sound is so captivating, and so immediately recognizable because it’s a modernized version of the Glenn Miller sound, sized down to a small band: The melody is doubled by vibraphone, piano and the guitar in the lower octave. The piano fills out the chords; the “secret” is a well-balanced mixture between unison and fully voiced phrases.