Erroll Garner's 'A Night At The Movies' Reissue Radiates Joy

Nov 19, 2019
Originally published on November 21, 2019 11:14 am
Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The late jazz pianist Erroll Garner is the subject of a new series of CD reissues of albums he recorded for various labels between 1959 and 1973. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review of his pick from the series so far.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER'S I FOUND A MILLION DOLLAR BABY IN A FIVE AND TEN CENT STORE")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Erroll Garner, 1964, giving a big Hollywood buildup to "I Found A Million Dollar Baby (At The Five And Ten Cent Store)" (ph) - a song from 1931. It's from his album "A Night At The Movies," my favorite so far from the ongoing Octave Remastered Series of Garner albums. They're being issued one a month through next June. As an album concept, songs from the movies is about as loose as it gets. This one's even looser because some songs, like that last one, actually come from Broadway. A few selections are older than talking pictures, like 1913's "You Made Me Love You," a vehicle for Al Jolson, who did it slower than Erroll Garner does.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER'S "YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU")

WHITEHEAD: Erroll Garner is among the most charming and chipper jazz pianists. He's got that relentlessly bouncy beat, he gets a big, brassy sound from piano, and he has a way of circling back to the tune during an improvisation. Those qualities in his old-timey repertoire here can make Garner sound like a throwback to 1920s novelty ragtimers, but he was a modernist as well. The German song "Just A Gigolo" was a favorite of Thelonious Monk. Erroll Garner puts his own spin on it, tinkering with its timing his way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER'S "JUST A GIGOLO")

WHITEHEAD: The Garner trio's buoyant beat was a three-way effort with Eddie Calhoun's bass, Kelly Martin's drums and Erroll's left hand all in sync. But Garner's roaming right hand was the trio's free agent. His improvised line would step across that firm beat and slip into the cracks between accents. That line hovers over the rhythm the way his variations hover over a melody. This is "Stella By Starlight."

(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER'S "STELLA BY STARLIGHT")

WHITEHEAD: I'm leery of discussions about how music makes you feel because the same performance may evoke a wide range of reactions from different listeners, but it's hard to miss the joy that radiates from Erroll Garner's piano as he spins out new and old melodies and cracks his little musical jokes. He's as listener-friendly as jazz gets. He improvises with wit, style and grace, and he swings like mad. That joy he radiated is still contagious. You could catch it even now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER'S "IT'S ONLY A PAPER MOON")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and The Audio Beat. He reviewed "Night At The Movies," one in a series of reissues of recordings by pianist Erroll Garner. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR I'll talk with Marielle Heller about directing "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood," the new film starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers based on the friendship that developed between Rogers and a cynical journalist assigned to profile him. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Mooj Zadie, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER'S "IT'S ONLY A PAPER MOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.