Saturday, July 16, 2016

Jazz for a Rainy Day

Saturday morning. 1980, I think. Summertime. Didn’t seem like it, though.  It was cool, raining and windy as hell.

It was closing in on noon, and we (me, Roommate Mike, his brother and whoever slept over from bar-hopping the night before) were just getting up. And what, with the weather being what it was, no one was in a hurry to go anywhere.

So we decided to have breakfast, which at that time, meant an omelet for some reason, which was a big production.

Now there were a lot of things about this morning that were a just a little weird.

We usually made the omelets on Sunday. That’s when we would be recovering from a very late Saturday night out. Friday nights could be pretty late, too, but if you got up for working that morning, that seemingly bottomless supply of youthful energy was at least somewhat dissipated. So Saturday nights were usually the later ones.

Plus, there were usually things that had to get done on Saturday. But like I said, due to the weather, no one was in a mood to go out and do them.

And the very non-summery weather itself.  The rain was moving sideways. Like a mini-hurricane.

There were too many of us to fit in the kitchen, and since we wanted to see the weather anyway, we set up a table in the living room.

I was always the one putting on music, and now that the omelet was in progress, I’d have to find something suitable for the fragile sensibilities of hungover twenty-year-old white guys.

But it was such a weird day it was hard to find anything that felt right.

Mike and I had combined our record collections when we moved in. Mike’s collection was pretty respectable, and he inherited some albums from his uncle, which gave us some needed breadth. When I’d go through those records (btw, if you ever invite me to your house, I’m going to go through your records, and judge you accordingly), I could usually identify the artists, even if the music wasn’t in a genre I loved.

But there was this one record I didn’t know what to make of. The cover had a picture of a young woman (in pre-1960s style dress) standing on the rocks of a beautiful seashore, with her arms extended over her head in celebration. The record was called "Concert by the Sea".

What kind of music could this be?  Not muzak, certainly, as I assumed that it was painful enough to record that crap the first time around, why would anyone take the trouble of playing it again, in public no less, where rocks could be thrown?

Thus eliminating that genre as a possibility, and noting the overall weirdness of the day, I said, what the hell, and put it on.

And how was it?
Well, it wasn’t the dreaded (to me) overly familiar.
Nor was it an artist some of us (everyone but me, that is) loved but that the rest of us (me, that is) hated.
It didn’t have the taint (to me) of nostalgia since none of us had heard it before.
It didn’t contain any overplayed radio hits.
It wasn’t even the beloved familiar, which would not have fit this particular situation.
But what it was, was perfect.

“Wow, what is that you put on?” Mike asked from the kitchen.
“It's one of yours.”
“Oh, yeah? Who is it?
“Erroll Garner.”

Okay, some of you may recognize the name. Mr. Garner wrote “Misty”,
after all. But what did I know at the time?

But when Erroll starts to play, there’s no stopping him. The music just flows effortlessly for 45 wonderful minutes.

The recording was not of the best quality, and the record was scratched. Yet this added to the overall otherworldliness (to us) of the music. If we put on anything else that morning, I have no recollection of what it was.

For some reason, this older African American pianist (accompanied by bass and drums) playing jazz versions of songs from the American songbook that I didn’t even know at the time, on a sunny beach in California in 1955, magically transfixed five hung over white guys having breakfast during a stormy Saturday morning (or by now, afternoon) in 1980.

From what I understand now, Errol was considered somewhat of a sellout. Jazz was getting very adventurous around 1955, and this record was probably very commercial sounding compared to what other jazz artists were doing.

But to someone like me it was completely new. I had already gotten Kind of Blue so Concert by the Sea wasn’t my first jazz album.  But KOB was easier to absorb because it used some very simple modal themes that even a rock n roller could absorb. CBTS however, is filled with standards that I didn’t know, so there was the parsing of the songs themselves, then the arrangements, and finally the improvisations. There was a lot to hear and learn, but it was played in such an entertaining way, I kept going back to it.

After Mike moved on (and out) I had to buy my own copy – this time with a slightly altered cover and a “Jazz Masterpieces” sticker on it and the bright colors replaced by a monotone one that was supposed to be an improvement. The sound quality was only improved by the lack of scratches.

Erroll Garner: Concert by the Sea 

And while it was all still quite enjoyable, I never captured the magic of that first listen.

That’s okay. There was plenty of magic still to be had. And now there’s more.

The original record was a single disc with 11 songs, so it obviously was an edited version of the show. Recently, however, the Garner family discovered tapes containing the entire concert, which has now been released.

Erroll Garner: The Complete Concert by the Sea

This version consists of three CDs: the first two of which comprise the entire concert, and the third containing the original album plus a long (and  unnecessary) interview.

And the original cover has been restored in the best possible way. The bright colors of the shore are back, but now the young lady is African American. Why? Probably because at the time it was originally released record companies were reluctant to put non-white women on jazz album
covers. They didn’t want to scare away the white customers, who I'm sure weren't racist.

Anyway, the expanded version is better, if less intense, than the original. There’s more room for variations of mood and pace. And the cool thing is that if you don’t have time for the entire concert, you just put on the third disc. This is one of those rare instances where more is better.

I had no idea what to expect when I first put this record on, but it provided the perfect soundtrack to that very weird day. And now it’s back and almost as good as that first time around.

I don’t know exactly where this record stands historically – commercial sell out or jazz cornerstone – but I am sure I wouldn’t want to live without it.


"I Remember April"

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