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Jazz Album Of The Week: New Archival Recording Affirms Erroll Garner’s Underappreciated Genius

Erroll Garner Symphony Hall

September 20, 2021. Physicists have long postulated time travel as possible, at least theoretically. But why live in theory when you can now pick up a copy of Erroll Garner’s Symphony Hall Concert and instantly transport yourself back to Boston’s Symphony Hall in January 1959.

With sound impeccably restored and remastered from the original analog recording, this nine-song compilation of previously unreleased material from that 27-song marathon of a concert showcases some of Garner’s most beloved originals, like “Dreamy,” “Erroll’s Theme,” the rarely recorded “Moments Delight,” and, of course, the indefatigable “Misty.”

And then there are the covers, five of them. Takes on tunes from the Gershwins (“A Foggy Day” and “But Not for Me”), Vernon Duke (“I Can’t Get Started with You”), and one from the mysterious songwriter Bernie Miller (“Bernie’s Tune”) that was later popularized by Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker. All played in Garner’s buoyant, inimitably rhythmic style—whoops, grunts and all— that bridged ragtime and bebop and epitomized a sneaky brand of low-country sophistication.

Though he was unfairly and inaccurately portrayed in the press as a gregarious simpleton, even an idiot savant—due the racism of the time and the fact that he’d never learned to read music—his performance here reveals a true composer, who, as a live performer, was a sly, referential improvisor with boundless technique and a self-gratifying mischievousness that belied his outwardly good-natured presentation.

With Garner, there was more than what met the eye and certainly more than what one at the time might have read in the popular press. Thank God we’ve got ears; the ears don’t lie.

When you listen, you sense the undercurrent of an inside joke at play that only Garner really understands. Instead of alienating audiences, this joke, this secret, captivates them. You think, “this guy must have some enlightened understanding of the universe and our place in it that the rest of us don’t.”

Perhaps at once his superhero’s cape and his armor, his winking bonhomie seems to aid him both emotionally and artistically. It must’ve been how he endured the passive and insidious mistreatment of being underestimated—by the press, sure, but most consequentially by his record company, Columbia, whom he sued triumphantly for breach of contract after the label released older recordings without his consent. And it makes for a music that’s a unique blend of romantic yet fiery and generous yet compellingly antagonistic.

On full display here are all Garner’s tics and tricks, from the playful rope-a-dope of his improvisational overtures to the way he might play behind the beat with one hand while swinging metronomically with the other. Take stock of his use of the whole keyboard, his dynamic wizardry and penchant for playing so many of the different instrumental lines you might hear in a big band, and you might just square the circle of how Garner was able to get his trio of just piano, bass (Eddie Calhoun), and drums (Kelly Martin) to sound like a much larger group.

Perhaps the most tantalizing part of the Symphony Hall Concert is that it’s incomplete. At nine tunes, it represents just a third of the actual Symphony Hall concert from January 1959. Lucky for jazz fans, this compilation is meant simply to whet the appetite for a monstrous main course, the massive limited edition box set, Liberation in Swing.

Released in celebration of the Garner centennial by Mack Avenue in partnership with Garner’s label, Octave Music, the box set will feature the 27-song Symphony Hall concert in full, along with other compilations of Garner’s previously unreleased work—a staggering 189 tunes in all. A slickly designed coffee-table reader also includes essays from drummer Terri Lynne Carrington, vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, and what the publisher is billing as “the definitive narrative of Garner’s career” by jazz historian and Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley.

The Wall Street Journal recently called it a “lavish package” and “a contender for jazz gift of the year.” Of course, with an MSRP of $350.00, the deluxe Liberation in Swing: Centennial Collection may only make good fiscal sense for those who actually follow the Wall Street Journal’s advice on a regular basis.

Sign up here between September 24th to 27th for a chance to win the Erroll Garner Liberation in Swing Centennial Collection.

Matt Silver is a journalist, commentator, and storyteller who’s been enamored with the concept of performance since his grandparents told him as a toddler that singing "Sunrise, Sunset" in rooms full of strangers was the cool thing to do.