George Shearing - piano; Warren Chiasson - vibraphone; Dick Garcia - guitar; Carl Pruitt - bass; Ken Belding - drums; Unnamed brass choir; Special guest - percussionist Armando Peraza
In the 1950s, pianist George Shearing led one of the most popular jazz combos on the planet. The uniquely refined sound of piano with vibraphone, guitar, bass and drums resonated with jazz fans and gained the British pianist a large following in the States on the strength of such early offerings as 1951's Touch of Genius, 1952's I Hear Music and 1955's Shearing in Hi-Fi. Shearing is also known for composing the jazz standard "Lullaby of Birdland," which has been recorded by countless musicians and is still covered to this day.
At the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival, Shearing brought an adventurous new 16-piece group, premiering material from his recently released Capitol album, Burnished Brass. Shearing's usual quintet of guitar, vibraphone, bass and drums was augmented for this occasion by an 11-piece brass section consisting of four trumpets, four trombones, two French horns and one tuba. The result was a sound that was soothing rather than bracing, warm and engaging rather than aggressive. In some ways, this was mood music, strictly intended to appease rather than excite -- the smooth jazz of its time. Shearing did spice up the proceedings by mixing in two compelling Latin jazz numbers, "Mambo No. 2" and "Rondo" (both from 1958's Latin Lace album), which showcased the great Afro-Cuban percussionist Armando Peraza (later of the Carlos Santana band).
They open their July 2nd set on a swinging note with a driving rendition of the 1935 Broadway show tune "Lulu's Back in Town," with the punchy brass section offering provocative reharmonizations on top of Pena's steady basslines and Brice's Jo Jones-inspired hi hat work. The evocative ballad "Sleepy Manhattan" is a schmaltzy bit of exotica with mellow horns and cascading piano lines. Next they turn back the clock to 1933 for a reworking of Oscar Levant's "Blame It on my Youth," another piece of easy-listening fluff that pre-dates Muzak. Their politely swinging version of "Cheek to Cheek" (which Shearing imagines was written in dedication to "the rather overcrowded elevator") features horn parts that feel tacked on and superfluous while on a funereal arrangement of the spiritual number "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," the horns work very effectively in creating an evocative, requiem-like mood.
Their breezy arrangement of "I Could Write a Book" includes a section where the band breaks down to a simple piano-bass-drums trio, and for those moments the three are swinging nimbly as one. But the horns return and again seem superfluous to the flow. The Basie-esque blues, "Cuckoo in the Clock," is a jaunty number that gradually builds dynamics by shifting from muted trumpets to open horns. And the energy level lifts considerably when percussionist Peraza takes the stage for a spirited "Mambo No. 2," which has the horns kicking in midway through the tune. They close their set with another fiery Afro-Cuban number, "Rondo," which builds to a dynamic peak with a trumpet fanfare on top of Shearing's churning son montuno groove. And as they finish the Newport crowd can be heard shouting, "More! More!" Apparently lacking material for this expanded ensemble, the leader instructs his orchestra, "Play the same thing again," and they reprise "Rondo" for an encore.
Born blind on August 13, 1919 in London, England, Shearing began playing the piano at the age of three. The youngest of nine children, he received some music training as a teenager at the Linden Lodge School for the Blind in London while also absorbing recordings by jazz piano greats Teddy Wilson, Milt Buckner and Fats Waller. He started playing professionally in the late 1930s with the Ambrose dance band and later appeared on the BBC before making his first recordings in 1937. In 1940, he played in Harry Parry's band and also with Hot Club of France violinist Stephane Grappelli, who had left Paris at the onset of World War II and relocated in London. Shearing visited the United States for the first time in 1946 and then emigrated to New York City the following year at the height of bebop. His first Stateside gig was at the Hickory House on 52nd Street with the Oscar Pettiford Trio. He later co-led a short-lived quartet with clarinetist Buddy DeFranco before forming the first and most famous of his quintets in 1949, which included Marjorie Hyams on vibes, Chuck Wayne on guitar, John Levy on bass and Denzil Best on drums. Shearing's extremely popular quintet recorded for the Discovery, Savoy and MGM labels through the mid '50s. There followed a long and lucrative relationship with Capitol Records that lasted from 1955 to 1969 and included collaborations with singers Nancy Wilson, Peggy Lee and Nat Cole. Shearing also made a highly acclaimed recording in 1961 the Montgomery Brothers (featuring guitar great Wes Montgomery.
After leaving Capitol, Shearing formed his own label, Sheba Records. In 1976, he had joined with Stephane Grappelli on a 1976 recording, The Reunion, for Pausa. After signing with Concord Records in 1979, he embarked on a number of collaborations with the likes of singers Mel Torme and Ernestine Anderson, guitarist Jim Hall and fellow Brit pianist Marian McPartland. Shearing continued to play in mainly trio settings after signing with Telarc Records in 1992, though he reverted to his original quintet formula on 2002's Back to Birdland. (Milkowski)