George Shearing's Piano Artistry

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George Shearing Quintet
George Shearing Quintet

George Shearing recently passed away at the age of 91. I have listened to his music off and on over the years, but it was only after his death that I really started revisiting his work. I thought, like many, that he was kind of cocktail music, a little too smooth, too clean, similar to what people say about Ahmad Jamal’s playing. People called it, “The Shearing Touch” or “The Shearing Piano.” I was totally wrong. Shearing is an amazing pianist and rivals the other great blind pianist, Art Tatum. How blind musicians (like Lenny Tristano) can achieve technical mastery when they can’t see the keyboard has always amazed me. Shearing was hipper than I thought. Working with vibes and the great Cuban conga player Armando Peraza, he had a very hip latin feel. I went back to an interview I did with him on Morning Becomes Eclectic in 1987 where he recalled his classical player telling him that he could pursue a classical career, but to go with jazz, because that’s where the better money was. He later returned and met with his much-less famous teacher years later…

Charlie Haden has travelled the world as a jazz bassist since the early 1960s. He told me this anecdote: Shearing was at La Guardia (or JFK?) boarding a flight for LA for an engagement. Being blind, he pre-boarded ahead of the pack and went up into first class. The pilot and co-pilot spotted their famous passenger and told him that he was one of their favorite jazz musicians and how happy they were to have him on board. They went on to ask him if there was anything they could do for him. He said yes, as a matter of fact there was. His guide dog hadn’t been walked that day and Shearing asked if they could walk him/her before taking off. The captain said he’d be happy to. When the waiting economy and business class passengers beheld the captain walking down the concourse with Shearing’s seeing-eye dog in his uniform, hat, and dark glasses, most of them cancelled their tickets and the plane arrived at LAX half-empty.

My CD recommendations: The Definitive Touch (Verve) or The Shearing Piano (Capitol).