Revisiting Erroll Garner’s “Dreamstreet”

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WP 2019 - 2DREAMSTREET / PORTER: Just One of Those Things. BASSMAN: I’m Getting Sentimental Over You. SAMPSON-MILLS: Blue Lou. ARLEN: Come Rain or Come Shine. RODGERS-HART: The Lady is a Tramp. FISHER-SHAY: When You’re Smiling. BURWELL: Sweet Lorraine. GARNER: Dreamstreet. Mambo Gotham. By Chance. RODGERS-HAMMERSTEIN: Oklahoma Medley: Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’; People Will Say We’re in Love; Surrey With the Fringe on Top / Erroll Garner, pno; Eddie Calhoun, bs; Kelly Martin, dm / Mack Avenue Records MAC1157

This 1961 album originally came out on the ABC-Paramount, Philips and French RCA labels. It is one of four early-1960s Garner albums being reissued by Mack Avenue Records.

Garner was always a difficult pianist to “place” stylistically. Like all modern jazz pianists, he came out of Earl Hines, but even more so than Hines, he played with a very percussive attack. His sense of rhythm lay halfway between swing and bop and his improvisations were more harmonically advanced than the Earl Hines of the late 1930s-early ‘40s but not nearly as much as those of Bud Powell, John Lewis or other bop pianists. He simply occupied a niche of his own, sometimes predictable, sometimes surrealistically inventive, and generally humming along with his own playing, as he does here. He was also one of the most popular jazz pianists in history because very little of what he played was above the heads of the average listener. The only thing that could stop Garner’s immense popularity was, unfortunately, his early death from lung cancer on January 2, 1977 at the age of 53.

A perfect example of how he operated within a tune’s framework is this performance of I’m Getting Sentimental Over You. After playing George Bassman’s well-known melody straight, Garner breaks up the rhythm into little chopping blocks of sound, moving the harmony in clever chromatic shifts. As usual for him, it was just daring enough to catch one’s attention without becoming too sophisticated. Another archetypal Garner performance is Blue Lou, where he sets up that regular-but-bouncing rhythm in the left hand, created by quickly strumming arpeggiated chords rather than playing the chords as a block of sound, while the right hand goes on a swinging spree, in the second and third choruses really breaking up the tune with inventions that, as I mentioned earlier, border somewhat on the surreal. Garner was hardly an intellectual; in conversation with jazz critics who wanted to hear from him how he came up with his ideas, he’d usually just smile and say, “Coochy, coochy, coochy!” But in his case, the actions spoke much louder than words. Perhaps he takes the strumming effect a bit too far in Come Rain or Come Shine, where he strums chords under the melody in the right hand while playing only a few stabbing chords or bass notes with his left, but that was Garner. One moment stunningly brilliant, the next playing it safer. The improv on this one consists mostly of bluesy-sounding single-note phrases in the right hand while the left goes back to strumming chords.

And then, one suddenly realizes the other magical quality that Garner had: his sense of humor. It wasn’t the openly guffawing kind of humor, as one heard when jazz musicians played parodies, but the kind of humor that had a twinkle in its eye. A perfect example is the angular, almost fugal introduction to The Lady is a Tramp. Who else, in the entire course of jazz history, could have thought that up? And then, after playing the first chorus, he suddenly throws in Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Following the next half-chorus, and he suddenly switches to 3/4 time for a few bars before returning to 4. Bill Evans, Jaki Byard, McCoy Tyner, Dave Brubeck and Powell (even into the early ‘60s) were all harmonically more advanced than this, but you listen to Garner play and you suddenly realize that he alone could make you smile. The man and his playing simply exuded good vibes.

In When You’re Smiling, Garner’s punching up of the rhythm almost sounds like a bulldozer doing a shuffle beat. And oh, by the way, did you notice that he actually has a rhythm section behind him? He practically ignored it, yet because of his marquee name and huge stature in the jazz community, he could always find top-notch bassists and drummers to play with him. His take on Cliff Burwell’s 1931 classic Sweet Lorraine illustrates perfectly how he differed from another pianist who came out of Earl Hines, Nat “King” Cole. Cole, who could also play with a bit of a bounce as well as sing with warmth and good vibes, was still a more “serious” player than Garner, but this Garner rendition takes the music into new realms that Cole never thought of.

The recital ends with three Garner originals, Dreamstreet, Mambo Gotham and By Chance, with the medley from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma played just before the last of these. Garner was forever writing new tunes, and unlike the jazz compositions of today, they always had strong and recognizable melodic lines. Misty, the most famous example, shocked the composer when it became a national hit. He didn’t think any more (or less) of it than his two or three dozen other originals. Oh sure, he was happy, especially when those residual checks came rolling in from other artists’ recordings, but he remained surprised by its overwhelming popularity. Mambo Gotham is so catchy you can almost hear the mambo line humming it as they danced to it.

By Chance, the slowest selection on this CD, was chosen as the closer. I’m not sure this was a wise idea—I don’t much care for ballad-type tunes anyway, and particularly don’t like them as closing numbers—but what the heck. This is still, overall, a superb Garner recital, delightful to hear and with several surprises in it.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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