Erroll Garner: Symphony Hall Concert 1959

Half an hour from a Boston show reminds how Garner's unique formula was repeated to the point of parody without necessarily becoming tiresome

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For anyone who, like me, knows everything Erroll Garner recorded and plays it over and over, these latest tracks from a Boston concert 62 years ago are consolidating rather than revelatory. At just a skip over 30 minutes, they’re also subsistence fare.

Mass-approval gatherings led to Garner’s self-parodying, something always in wait to beguile a performer with a unique set of musical tools and methods. On this recording, the guess-the-tune preludes were still musical, or perhaps made more musical for the purposes of an august venue before they became vaudeville in less hallowed ones.

The concert hall had become Garner’s venue of choice – or, rather, his manager Martha Glaser’s choice of a venue that would free her client from the need for less remunerative club dates. It was all based on record sales and the commercial estimation of how many might turn up to listen.

But Not For Me streams heart-stoppingly out of the obfuscation of its imperious intro as though it had already been in motion. On A Foggy Day In London Town Garner typically shows how pulse and tempo were matters to be toyed with. He got away with so much imperfection in the performance of charts such as Dreamy (those sometimes skimmed arpeggios and the too-abrupt linkages). Did bassist Ed Calhoun and drummer Kelly Martin do more “live” than could be heard in extant recordings? And was Whitney Balliett right to dismiss Garner at this stage as a bundle of self-caricaturing mannerisms? Discuss.

But listen to Martin’s consolidating percussiveness in Bernie’s Tune and Calhoun’s steadfast devotion to duty everywhere. Follow the shimmering keyboard in Moment’s Delight and Misty to clock the sustain-pedal fudges (never a problem with this reviewer) and wonder how listening to the same formats time and again is not necessarily wearing.

Balliett perhaps mistook repetition for repetitiveness. He had a point. But all an original can do is illustrate in what his originality consists. It’s often limiting. Miles Davis’s originality lay paradoxically in his capacity for re-invention, Garner’s in giving his admirers what they never ceased to demand.

Discography
A Foggy Day In London Town; But Not For Me; I Can’t Get Started (With You); Dreamy; Lover; Moment’s Delight; Bernie’s Tune; Misty; Erroll’s Theme (36.20)
Garner (p); Ed Calhoun (b); Kelly Martin (d). Boston, Mass., 17 January 1959.
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