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Friday, November 07, 2014

Shearing Delight

From the Vault Dept.: There were several years during which I interviewed an impressive parade of talent in various worlds of music and theater, and most of those conversations were pleasant, if usually perfunctory, experiences. But I remember George Shearing as by far the kindest, most accessible interview subject of all. Wish I’d been given a longer word-count for the piece.


AT FIRST, IT SEEMS AS IF GEORGE SHEARING is going to be all business. But when you talk to the renowned jazz pianist for any length of time you hear his sly sense of humor sneak through. “The first thing you probably want to know is how a show like this gets put together,” he says. He’s speaking by telephone from Manhattan, anticipating tomorrow’s (Friday, April 12) Proctor’s Theatre concert titled “A Gathering of Friends.”

George Shearing | Photo by Andy Baker
“First Joe Pass comes out and does a half-hour of solo guitar. A half hour of solo guitar?” Shearing echoes his statement with mock astonishment. “Yes. We figure if it’s good enough for Segovia, it’s good enough for Joe. Then (bassist) Neil Swenson and I go out and do the remainder of the first half. We take an intermission and then Neil and Joe Williams’ drummer go out together and then Joe and I go out and do some numbers. Then I have the privilege of bringing Joe Pass out again for a big finale with all five of us working.”

The quintet has been touring this show for the past few months, just now making its way along the east coast. The program has become fairly well set along the way, “although we probably have a choice in each segment for one or two substitutions here or there. That’s at the discretion of the performers – one of the Joes or me.”

Shearing speaks in a voice still lightly accented with the sound of his native London. He’s been a resident of the U.S. since 1947 and it was here that he made an international success with a quintet arrangement of “September in the Rain,” played by a group that was put together as a studio experiment and became the hallmark of the Shearing sound for the next twenty years.

 What’s the excitement in a program that was put together for a tour well in progress, made up of standards Shearing and company have been playing for the past few decades? “Ah, but we set a show like that and then leave room in it for spontaneity. The presentation always varies from night to night. That’s what jazz is all about!” He’s not being didactic or ironic – this is Shearing’s genuine enthusiasm coming through. “Also, there are changes we make. You can tell pretty quickly if you’re playing for a ballad audience, and then you add an extra one.”

Although he was considered to be at the easy-listening end of jazz for many years in this country, Shearing’s early performances, throughout England, prompted comparisons with Fats Waller and Art Tatum. And he still does a mean stride.

Born in 1919, he showed musical ability at an early age and soon was playing in neighborhood pubs in London. Ensemble and studio work followed – he doubled on swing accordion for a while – but a visit to this country in 1945 convinced him to follow jazz to its source.

He credits jazz critic and songwriter Leonard Feather with part of the inspiration for the quintet that brought him so much fame. The arrangements were done in echo of the sound of the Glenn Miller orchestra, with the clarinet part going to the vibes, the guitar taking the bottom sax line and the piano playing all five parts, doubling throughout. Bass and drums rounded out the unit.

Their first recording sold 900,00 copies.

Shearing has gone on to work in other configurations – for several years he was touring and recording with a bassist only – and has appeared as a classical pianist with many symphony orchestras throughout the country. He’s a songwriter best known for the bop anthem “Lullaby of Birdland,” and he’s also a singer who interprets lyrics with Fred Astaire-like deftness.

Will he sing during the Proctor’s show? “Possibly,” he says modestly. “Probably, during the first half.”

The second, he reminds us, features Joe Williams, known to the TV audience as Grandpa Al on the Cosby Show but best known as one of the greatest blues singers in the world. “He and I go back to 1949,” says Shearing. “He worked with the quintet. We also did a record together titled `The Heart and Soul of George Shearing and Joe Williams.’ Every song had either the word `heart’ or `soul’ in its title. Or both.”

Shearing’s last Proctor’s appearance, in 1989, was with singer Mel Tormé, a longtime acquaintance. He has recorded two Grammy-award winning albums with Tormé and they have a third coming out this summer on the Concord Jazz label. “It’s called `Mel and George “Do” World War Two,’” says Shearing. “Mel and I sat down together on it and realized what a glut of wonderful songs there was from that era, which otherwise was a terribly hostile time. We picked some romantic songs, songs about separated sweethearts, that sort of thing.”

Although the choice of repertory may seem old-fashioned, it’s the spirit of jazz that keeps his performances up-to-date and attracts an ever-younger audience. “There’s a good mixture of parents and children out there these days. In Florida not long ago I was approached backstage by a couple of nicely-dressed, nicely-spoken fourteen-year-olds who said they’d been fans of my music for years and decided it was time to introduce their parents to it.”

Tickets for the 8 PM concert are priced from $15 to $28 ($7.50 to $14 for fans under 18) and are available at Proctor’s box office, CBO outlets and Drome Sound.

Metroland Magazine, 11 April 1991

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