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George Shearing
At Home
Jazzknight NEW SEASON HIGHLIGHT ****
Beginning like a foxtrot, when was the last time that happened?, ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’ has a twinkling style, full of the chirpiness Nat King Cole managed to endow old Broadway songs with when he himself played piano. Shearing turns on his significant charm though after about a minute in, and these living room songs recorded in the great pianist’s New York home in 1983 draw out Don Thompson’s role as a confidant to Shearing’s left hand. Thompson played with Shearing for some 20 years in all, and you feel as if he knows Shearing’s every move on the tracks they play together. Now 73, he accompanied Barney Kessel early in his career in Vancouver clubs, and appears on the John Handy Quintet classic live album Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival recorded in 1965.

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Don Thompson: hearth of the matter

Thompson began playing concerts with Shearing decades later, from 1982 onwards, the year before the newly discovered At Home was recorded. And just under the three-minute mark he and the recording engineer (in fact one and the same), draw out the woodiness of the bass a skilled carpenter would find hard to locate.

A sprightly start then to this remarkable Jazzknight records album, Lady Shearing’s label, with the backing of discerning jazz distributor Proper Note, there’s an elegant fade at the end of the opener; and then, like some sort of mirage Johnny Mandel’s ‘A Time For Love’ emerges after the silence. Well what can you say? It’s beautiful. You just want to be there, even though the track’s very short. Thompson comes in on the arc of the Shearing line here time and again, at the emotional tug of the note. 

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Thompson’s own tune ‘Ghoti’ (apparently Shearing dubbed it: “up at the crack of Don”), leads into a riot in swing, and you could hear this being played with a vibes quintet, Shearing’s preferred stomping ground in his heyday. This one’s got bebop written all over it. After two minutes Shearing changes the goalposts, and there’s a rhythmic murmur that’s the very essence of bop syncopation.

The sound quality is fine throughout At Home: you can really hear the piano and bass and the instruments together. The album was mastered much later in Toronto, the city where Ellie Shearing first heard the tapes played before pressing green for go to start the process towards release after an ice age of 30 years in the obscurity of a drawer.

‘The Things We Did Last Summer’, the Jule Style/Sammy Cahn song begins jauntily, as if the duo are feeling completely at ease, and that’s a defining feature of this wonderful album. Apparently Lady Shearing provided cups of tea in breaks over the few days the album took to make. No producer was present, and there is a comfortable feel to all these tracks recorded around the time of a run of club dates in New York.

‘Laura’ is the first big talking point and really the test of the album. Opening expansively the theme is stated quite simply with a few ornate touches, but Shearing seems more interested in building the darkness in his left hand at which he more than succeeds. The tempo slows right down and there are some lovely washes after the 150-second mark moving towards some high-end tinkling that ends even more seriously than it began. With Thompson back ‘The Skye Boat Song’ I could have done without, although it’s a pretty enough melody and close to the bassist’s heart. But Shearing and Thompson are on more satisfying territory with Bird’s ‘Confirmation’ joyously foot tapping, but not fast at all. Remaining tracks are a winningly shy take on ‘The Girl Next Door’ with its hesitant opening; a swayingly optimistic ‘Can’t We Be Friends?’; the more mundane ‘I Cover the Waterfront’; and ‘Out of Nowhere’. Although ‘That Old Devil Called Love’ opens things up, ‘SubconsciousLee’ allows lots of bass space, and little detours here and there. Victor Young’s ‘Beautiful Love’ is simply a display of Shearing genius at the end.
At Home is released on 15 April

Sir George Shearing top, Don Thompson above; and the album cover