Erroll Garner was the greatest post-war jazz piano player – bar NONE.
This was the result of him having TWO extremely rare gifts. One – he was a genius. And two – he was an ambidexter. Let us examine these statements.
The term genius has been seriously devalued of late. Einstein was a genius. As were Isaac Newton and Leonardo DiCaprio. Sorry – Da Vinci.
Most people think of Einstein as the guy responsible for inventing the Atom Bomb – but no. He developed the theories that enabled others to do so. The damn thing would have evolved quite happily without him.
Most people think of Isaac as the bloke who sat under an apple tree and an apple fell on his head, as a result of which he discovered concussion – but no. The man virtually INVENTED PHYSICS.
And most people think of Leonardo as the artist who painted a smug woman against a wonky backdrop – and a dinner attended by Jesus, his Lady and some of his mates – but no. He also invented the helicopter.
Okay, kidding aside, these men’s brains worked at an infinitely higher level than 99.99% of the human race – this writer included – and Erroll was one of them.
But what about his dexterity? Well, many people claim to be ambidextrous – but few truly ARE. MOST of the claimants are actually LEFT-handed people who, as kids, were BULLIED by their teachers and/or parents into using their right hands.
Left-handed people were seen as being at a disadvantage in society – indeed, primitive societies even viewed them as CURSED – thus every time they began to use their left hand, they would be rapped across the knuckles by said parents/teachers.
This constant chastisement lead them to develop right-hand skills – but being naturally left-handed, they retained those skills also.
However, TRUE ambidexterity is very rare. It is essentially a SAVANT skill. When we are born, our brains’ two hemispheres are joined by countless threads, but many of these threads wither and die from lack of use as we develop.
But once in a blue moon, an individual grows up with most of the threads remaining intact. And they find themselves gifted with extraordinary abilities – many of which are only now being understood.
Some possess incredible mathematical skills. Others can play fifty games of chess simultaneously. Still more taste numbers, smell colours, etc.
And whilst many are assumed to be mentally ill, some go on to become legendary scientists, painters, or – as in the case of Erroll – musicians of astounding ability.
Whilst never being able to read music, Erroll composed hundreds of pieces – including the evergreen “Misty” – and quickly became the foremost jazz pianist of his time.
A typical Garner concert playbill had all of the usual entries (write-ups of his career, adverts, etc.) But when you arrived at the PROGRAMME for the evening – it would be BLANK.
Sometimes, there would be an explanation for the empty space. And whilst this reporter has never seen one, he believes it might as well have gone: “We have no idea what Mr Garner will play tonight. Even HE has no idea.”
So what happened at these concerts? Well, at the appointed hour, after his bass-player and drummer had taken the stage, this diminutive (he stood a mere five feet two – thus proving size isn’t everything) be-suited figure would emerge and take his seat on the piano stool, upon which several phone directories had been placed.
He would beam at the audience and begin playing. Incredible random musical sounds would fill the hall, while his accompanists would patiently wait. Then suddenly he would LAUNCH into a number. It would usually be a standard – or occasionally, one of his own pieces.
And the guys would simply JUMP IN.
They would follow him by INSTINCT – it was all they had. But what LUCKY bastards they were! It was a TRIP any musician would have sold their SOUL to take. They were witnessing sheer GENIUS.
So how did it all work? What was his SECRET? Well, Erroll was unique. Left-handed pianists (like Elton John) have a HEAVY left-hand – their style is based around chords – while “normal” right-handed players concentrate on the right hand – which plays the melody – leaving their left hands to just fill the chords.
But Garner had a heavy left AND right hand. However, his MAGIC came from the RELATIONSHIP between those two hands. The left would pound out a “drone” whilst the right hammered out his improvised melody. And then came the trick – he would mess with TIME.
He would constantly play either AHEAD OF or BEHIND the beat, bringing it back together only when necessary, to allow his audience to relate to what was going on.
Garner impressionists try to imitate this technique by simply going out of time at random – which is why they FAIL. Erroll was doing MUCH MORE than THAT. When HE did it, the “gap” between the beat and the melody formed a SEPARATE RHYTHM. It was like listening to TWO people playing – whose brains were CONNECTED.
Which is something NO other player has EVER managed to do. Even for Erroll, it was DIFFICULT (which is why his playing was always accompanied by his little grunts every time he got it right – which was every time).
It was a bit like “triphony” – which is where you take wires from the left and right outputs of a stereo amp and connect a speaker ACROSS them. This gives you a “third channel” – actually, it is merely the DIFFERENCE between the two, which on an old “ping-pong” stereo track means you can “dump” the vocalist, who is usually in the middle, giving you the backing track, in mono.
Some amps have a circuit that will do this for you, which is activated by a button marked “Karaoke” – singing to the ACTUAL backing track of a famous number is WAY better than doing it to one produced by a scratch band or worse still, some berk on a synthesizer.
And in Garner’s case, whilst his left hand played one rhythm pattern and his right played another – the relationship between the patterns created a THIRD. And THAT was what made him unique.
Erroll WAS a genius. He knew it and – whilst always maintaining a dignified modesty – REVELLED in it. Every night was an ADVENTURE. He never rehearsed – he didn’t NEED to. He just DID it. It was PURE improvisation!
But for those who were not there, that genius can only be appreciated through listening to his recordings, since he was taken from us in 1977, at the age of just 55. The most famous is of course, “Concert By The Sea” – but sadly, the original recording of it was of poor quality.
Much better is Garner at his PEAK – “One World Concert” was recorded at the Seattle World’s Fair in ’63. Erroll totally KILLS – and the sound quality is much better than “Concert By The Sea”.
But avoid the recent CD re-issue – the original producer may have been involved with the re-master, but it’s CRAP. The sound quality is awful, some players “gap out” during the applause between tracks – and one of the best tracks is MISSING.
No, get the ORIGINAL VINYL ALBUM – there are currently a number of copies (some quite cheap) on Ebay as I type. It is the finest recording of the man’s very BEST work (and yes, it DOES include “Misty”). For a sample, hit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xXWqmPdU9k4
And now that he’s gone, how long do we have to wait for ANOTHER Erroll Garner?
Well for what it’s worth, I did the maths. Although the parameters are vague (an ambidextrous genius who enjoys doing what he can do) allowing for multiple-odds reckoning, I have calculated that another Garner SHOULD emerge…
In about three hundred years.