I'd been thinking of discussing George Shearing not long ago, when the unexpected news of his death appeared.
I was not exactly a late-comer to jazz appreciation, though my orientation was biased towards the earlier decades (the 20's, 30's and 40's) in consequence of my enjoying the vast collection of 78 RPM records my old childhood friend Larry Schwafel had amassed during our adolescent years growing up in Napa, California during the 1950's and 1960's. When I finally got around to researching the jazz of the 1950's, starting in my Thirties, much of that had become unavailable, or only available (at that time) on cassette tape versions. In the 1980's and 1990's--before the brick & mortar retail music sales industry went under (such as Tower Records)--I bought a lot of jazz and classical music CD's, and expanded my sense of the 1950's and 1960's jazz scene. Radio--at least in this area--had pretty much abandoned jazz in favor of later pop music styles. The same was true of classical music. So I was more or less on my own, following my nose into areas for which the actual audience was certainly relatively modest-sized.
I knew Shearing's name, of course, and I'd heard the name "Lullaby of Birdland"--which has been a standard for decades. My preoccupation with the keyboard meant that--sooner or later--I would sample Shearing's recordings, even those which (less to my liking) were of combinations of instruments (drums, bass violin, vibes, trumpets, etc.), where the piano might just be a participant in, rather than the focus of, the music. Shearing was a brilliant solo player, but it wasn't until relatively late in his career, that solo albums began to appear with greater frequency. Shearing's intimate, "soft" approach to the keyboard may have had something to do with this, as if he couldn't sustain the expectation of a jazz audience with the force and energy of a typical strong player, with his complex, eclectic compositional style. Indeed, it was Shearing's more amenable style which allowed him to survive, as more dominating figures came and went with the passing of fashion. Shearing had started, after all, in the late 1940's, just at the end of the Swing Era, and at the beginning of the Progressive Era, Bebop, Cool Jazz, Hard Bop, etc. His ability to weather the changes these new styles brought is/was a testament to his durability, and the core appeal of his lyrical, witty, but moderated approach. A virtuoso from his youth, Shearing was clearly capable to adopting, or adapting himself to, all kinds of new techniques, which he displayed with unquestioned panache in each subsequent appearance or recording session.
Two albums which I enjoy immensely--from 1985-86--are George Shearing Grand Piano, and George Shearing More Grand Piano, in which he holds forth without any back-up at all. In each, he explores varying kinds of play, now drifting gently over a lyric in his signature stacked block-chord style, now turning a pop melody into an ethereal Satie gymnopede, ripping out a swinging stride piece, or reprising a composition of his own in his hippest 50's poly-tonal version. Every Shearing performance is a demonstration of some kind, a statement about how standards can be seen from different angles, throwing new light on the sentiment and content of the original inspiration. Never content merely to rely on a straight rendition, he makes each performance stand alone as an intrinsically intellectual surprise. There's never a dull moment.
Asked about whether he had been blind "all his life" Shearing's stock answer was always "not yet!" In my discussion about disability in Eigner, I offered the theory that there is no such thing, that each person lives inside of what his/her capabilities are--they become the limits and potentials of an individual life. Whatever it was that permitted Shearing to be the talented pianist he was, was a gift that transcended what we think of as his limitation. Though he could not see the keyboard, its physical dimensions, and response to his touch, made his playing of it seem as natural as breathing. I wonder, too, about how playing may have felt for him. Was it a more sensual experience than that available to sighted players? Deprived of the visual, was his apprehension of musical sound more profound as a consequence? There's no way I can know.
Shearing's work comes out of the "cool Fifties" and that atmosphere was never completely abandoned in the decades that followed. As the jazz combo configuration developed over time, there was less opportunity to for complex musical interaction, and Shearing's public performances became, usually, just him and a favorite bass accompanist. The piano and a bass. This allowed (or forced) Shearing to hold forth typically without relief for two-set gigs, but he never seemed stressed or over-taxed. By the end of his life, Shearing had become one of the grand old men of the keyboard--indeed of all jazz--having worked through half a century of musical history. The layered memories and echoes of tunes and times shared would meld together in an intricate tapestry of experience, informing each time at the instrument with additional connections and references.
There isn't a lot of Shearing on YouTube, but you can sample all the tracks on Grand Piano and More Grand Piano via CD Universe website. Obviously, you don't want to purchase them, just hit the little yellow circled arrows. I'm fond of many of these tracks, but they're probably not for everyone. Perhaps a bit too sentimental. I like hot jazz as well as the next person, even very abstract stuff, but anyone who can play standards with style has my attention.
Here's his rendition of My Funny Valentine, played like a classical late-romantic meditation. And here's his Satie-ized version of It Never Entered My Mind. Shearing's signature piece--Lullaby of Birdland--is rendered here with a very nice video of his hands. Every pianist has a distinctive hand position and "attack" on the keyboard. When I was taking serious lessons for a while back in the 1960's, the theory was that everyone should curl their fingers over the keys, and try to retract the fingers that weren't striking keys. It made for a weird cramping in your hands! I think this nonsense was later abandoned, and now most teachers, I understand, prefer to let students "find" their natural position. A teacher I know insists that the trick to playing well is to relax the hands, so they're fluid and freed to move across and among the keys. I've always felt that different kinds of music demands different kinds of technique. Beethoven demands a lot from a pianist, but there's no way you could use the skills and platform that kind of playing requires on swing, or the Impressionists. Watching Shearing's hands in this YouTube video is like watching some animals dancing. But he couldn't see what his hands were doing--it's all touch and the intuitive sense of the structure of the keyboard, and the constant cognitive confirmation (feedback). Playing an instrument well--especially jazz, where you can keep going and going, making new variations of a theme, almost indefinitely--may enable one to elevate to another plane entirely, where one is pure spirit, floating, gliding, tagging objects in space, calling and answering, evoking and teasing, flipping off the world or singing in gratitude.