There’s a feeling that, at a certain moment in history, a very specific jazz-piano style was able to convey to the listener. It was a smoky, late-night kind of feeling — an ad-man’s dream of sophistication and promise. No two musicians’ playing embodied this feeling better than pianists Ahmad Jamal and Erroll Garner.
During a heyday that ran from the late 1940s until the later 1960s, Erroll Garner’s popularity was as great as any jazz musician’s. He routinely made the rounds of late-night television shows, had a bestselling LP with Concert By the Sea, composed and played one of pop music’s most widely covered standards with “Misty,” and had a style that was imitated by lounge pianists all over the world (as well as by actor Dudley Moore during his occasional forays into jazz performance). But since his death in 1977, Garner’s reputation as a jazz great has slipped as his generation of fans has not been replaced by younger listeners. This is unfortunate because, as Gems makes abundantly clear, Garner was a superb original. His playing is glossy, romantic, funny and intelligent. And his sense of swing is subtle and irresistible. And even though he played for the masses, the jazz pianists of his day adored him. Even the imperious Art Tatum (not a man quick to hand out compliments) was a fan.
Who wouldn’t be one? “Body and Soul,” virtually always treated as a ballad (until John Coltrane’s 1962 version), is given a subtly buoyant undertone that wipes away any trace of sentiment. Garner supplies his own sentiment to the wonderful “I Cover the Waterfront,” and then chips away at it with a stop/start left and swing and some exquisite right hand triplets. It may sound easy, but it’s not; nobody else ever got that phrasing exactly right. “Laura” is dolorous and deeply felt, “Indiana,” bright and chirpy, and the behind the beat innuendo of “I’m in the Mood for Love” unmistakable. And Garner’s own “Play, Piano, Play” was an award-winning tune the year Gems was recorded. Pick any tune though; they’re all terrific. Even the politically incorrect album cover (it shows Garner crowned by a cloud of cigarette smoke) is evocative of an earlier time, when jazz was something that adults, hearts full of intrigue, put on their hi-fis in the wee small hours on the morning.