JJ 06/72: Erroll Garner at Hammersmith Odeon

Fifty years ago Sinclair Traill saw the 'devastatingly fascinating' pianist play a typically exuberant, extempore set in London. First published in Jazz Journal June 1972

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Erroll Garner in Sydney in 1972. Photo by Harry Monty

Although not a single paper, musical or otherwise, that I read carried even a single line coverage, Erroll Garner played a highly successful concert at the Odeon, Hammersmith on Saturday 6th May. It was his first visit here for over four years (much, much too long!) and considering the lack of publicity by the promoters, the concert was well attended – the vast theatre being something like three quarters full.

Happily, from where I sat, we had none of those twangy Odeon atmospherics that sometimes ruin band shows at this venue. The piano sounded like a good instru­ment, and certainly came to life under the hands of the ‘little man’. All Garner’s programmes are pretty well on the same plane – some better than others, but all on a high level of inventiveness. No titles are ever announced, and as Erroll ushers in each number with a devious introduction of his own devising, the whole thing resolves itself into a kind of three-part guessing game between pianist, audience and the three-piece rhythm team. The system has its disadvantages, and I did hear uncomplimentary remarks being passed on the total lack of programme information – but that’s the Garner way and you either take it, or leave it.

But the listening public are not the only ones in the dark as to what is, and has been played. After the show I asked Erroll to identify four of the tunes he had played, but he couldn’t truthfully remember a single one. Before the show I had requested You Turned Me Around, that fine blues from his ‘Feeling is Believing’ album, but he couldn’t promise to remember it. ‘Why’ he said, with a mighty guffaw, ‘it took ’em six months to teach me Misty, so that I could remember it! I never can remember what I play, even when I have written them’.

But the programme nevertheless was intensely interesting and full of fine pianistic moments – ranging from the quicker tunes, played with a two-handed attack and utmost vigour, to the ballads (sometimes a little over-romantic) and one real bring-down blues, the whole thing larded with that extreme drollery which the ‘little man’ exudes at all times. Jimmy Smith (drums), José Mangual (bongos) and Ernest McCarthy (bass) carry along the rhythm as Garner likes it, and sur­round him with a pleasantly swinging beat. Erroll, as always, worked himself into a lather, grunting, stomping and humming the chord sequences – romping with ever increasing vigour through a series of standards and originals with his own miraculously personal impact.

There is no other jazz pianist playing today quite like Erroll – the framework he works within remains virtually the same over the years – the repertoire is familiar, but the style unique and devastatingly fasci­nating – long may it last.