July 22, 2013

Records From My Father, Part 2: "Velvet Carpet."

For the second effort in this series, I chose "Velvet Carpet," by The George Shearing Quintet with String Choir. I wasn't sure whether to capitalize "string choir," because it sounds generic, but what's a string choir? There are no vocals on this album, but perhaps there's an idea that the strings are singing. The strings are definitely in the background, with Shearing's quintet out in front. I take it the strings are more the plush, lush carpet...


... and the lady is the quintet. The lady is also perhaps the woman to be seduced by this lovely, charming music, over which a man and a woman can converse, wittily, and if there are any gaps in the conversation, they can snuggle and listen and feel elegant and sophisticated. And doesn't this woman look like a present day starlet?

The liner notes tell you how sophisticated you are:
To the sophisticates, [Shearing's] urbane piano seems to emanate from a penthouse high against an awesome city skyline.
There's a high-low ethos here too. In contrast to "the sophisticates," there are "those who like jazz." What Shearing offers them is "a beat as basic and danceable as any that rolled out of the open windows of Basin Street on a sweltering summer night."


I was surprised how much I enjoyed this music, even as I remember feeling perfectly annoyed at my father for listening to something that seemed so inanely smooth and pleasant. Here, listen to "'Round Midnight." What must he have thought of my finding these things manifestly bad? Now, I realize that I'm thinking about how I felt about his records when I was a teenager, but this album came out in 1956, when I was only 5, and I'm sure none of this annoyed me back then. In fact, I think I know that I loved it when the strings played pizzicato. And I thought everyone loved it. Everyone anticipated the switch to pizzicato and experienced delight. Listening to this record, I believe that George Shearing believed that sophisticates and jazz lovers alike would thrill when the strings went pizzicato.

Let's take a closer look at that little drawing of George Shearing:


Do you think George is giving you a sly look? If so, you are wrong. George Shearing was born blind. 
Born in Battersea, London, Shearing was the youngest of nine children. He was born blind to working class parents: his father delivered coal and his mother cleaned trains in the evening. He started to learn piano at the age of three and began formal training at Linden Lodge School for the Blind, where he spent four years.

Though he was offered several scholarships, Shearing opted to perform at a local pub, the Mason's Arms in Lambeth, for "25 bob a week" playing piano and accordion. He even joined an all-blind band during that time and was influenced by the records of Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller....

In 1947, Shearing emigrated to the United States, where his harmonically complex style mixing swing, bop and modern classical influences gained popularity.... In 1949, he formed the first 'George Shearing Quintet'... Shearing credited the Glenn Miller Orchestra's reed section of the late 1930s and early 1940s as an important influence.

Shearing's interest in classical music resulted in some performances with concert orchestras in the 1950s and 1960s, and his solos frequently drew upon the music of Satie, Delius and Debussy for inspiration. He became known for a piano technique known as "Shearing's voicing," a type of double melody block chord, with an additional fifth part that doubles the melody an octave lower....
I expected this album to be Muzak — schmaltzy, embarrassing junk. But it was detailed and crisp, and I asked the spirit of my father to forgive me for my deafness to the things that he loved.


Will Cate said...

Reminds me quite a bit of my parents' record collection when I was a kid in the 60s. They had a whole series of "seduction" music albums from the 40s and 50s (Jackie Gleason was a big producer of these, also on Capitol Records).

jpesack said...

Thank you for posting this. I have two George Shearing albums, one of which is very jazzy, and this one called "Velvet Carpet." I found a mint copy of the latter a few months ago and hesitated to listen to it because I feared it would resemble Jackie Gleason or Ray Conniff schmaltz. However, when I finally did sit down and listen to it this afternoon, I was pleasantly surprised, and came to much the same conclusion about it as you did. I had no idea Shearing was blind or that he was such an innovator. Thanks for the musicology lesson!