The other evening, I went to see a concert pianist at the theatre in Brive play a repertoire mainly of pieces by the Brazilian composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and the Spanish composer, Manuel De Falla. Originally from Martinique, Wilhelm Latchoumia is based in France and teaches piano here and in Switzerland. He has accompanied various orchestras, won prestigious awards and toured around the world. He studied his instrument over many years and his technique was breathtaking to behold from my seat close to the stage. For the final piece by Villa-Lobos, 'Rudepoêma', he used sheet music for the first time, in the form of a kind of electronic tablet, which flashed up page after page of musical notation at the touch of a finger. I found the idea of following the notes on the screen with the speed at which his fingers were picking out complex patterns of notes quite simply mind-boggling.
The point is that Errol Garner, the popular Pittsburgh jazz pianist, famous among other things for 'Misty' (as requested by the psychopathic killer in Clint Eastwood's film) and the big-selling Concert By The Sea, had an equally extraordinary technique, but he couldn't read a note of music. He was entirely self-taught, which I find equally mind-boggling. How dey do dat? When answering questions why he had never learnt to read music, Garner replied famously and brilliantly, 'People don't come to watch me read.' Or words to that effect.
People certainly came to see him and/or bought his records. In terms of the affection he inspired in the public, he could probably be compared to Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller. In fact, while trying to find an authentically live video by the latter, I veered off onto this wonderful version of Waller's 'Honeysuckle Rose'. The affable (and famously silent) pianist, who usually performed solo or as here in trio format, takes the standard at a breakneck tempo right from the off. I love the introductory flourishes, typical of his mischievous habit of keeping both audience and band mates guessing what he was about to play, where he manages to confound his bass player and his drummer with false starts and misleading embellishments – so much so that his perennial bassist Eddie Calhoun just opens his hands at one point in a gesture of perplexity. Not that this stopped him and drummer Kelly Martin from slipping seamlessly into their stride at just the right moment. 'Stride' being the operative word here. Garner developed his own instantly recognisable style, but if it was rooted in anything it was probably the stride style of the 1930s associated with the likes of Fats Waller, Willie 'The Lion' Smith, James P. Johnson and, to a lesser extent, his fellow Pittsburghian, Earl Hines. Anyone wanting to understand what stride was all about just needs to focus intently on what Garner does for about a minute from the 3:05 mark on this video.
As for that signature style, most lovers of jazz piano can recognise Garner within a few seconds, but trying to describe what he does is, certainly for a non-playing dumbkopf like me, rather more difficult. As evident here, he could do extraordinary things in terms of tempo: the idea that you can slow down the left hand while speeding up the right or vice versa, for example, utterly confounds my innate lack of co-ordination. Apparently, he would enhance the rhythmic tension he could create by his right hand playing slightly behind the steady beat of his left by accelerating and decelerating the right-hand beat, a device nicknamed the 'Russian Dragon'. I couldn't tell you why. Technicalities aside, one thing was quite sure: Errol Garner could swing like a baaad mother... (shut yo mouth!) with apparent effortless ease. As the pianist modestly contended, 'Mine is just a gift I was born with.'
Allegedly, the great Art Tatum warned the young Canadian pretender to his throne, Oscar Peterson, to 'watch out for the small man.' Garner sure was small; at 5 feet two inches he was taller than the little French giant, Michel Petrucciani, but the eagle-eyed will have noticed that the piano stool he sits on here has been elevated by phone books or something similar. Small but radiant. The great bass player, Ray Brown, called him 'the happy man'. He seemed to play with a constant smile on his face, which inevitably brought smiles to the faces of his audience. As Woody Allen, one of his famous admirers, suggests: 'Everything Garner plays becomes optimistic and pleasurable.' An astonishing technique rooted in rhythm and melody along with a genial personality, it's not surprising that he was such a crowd-pleaser. Brian Priestley, co-author of Jazz: The Essential Companion, put it very nicely: 'He merely found the way to people's hearts and never lost it.'