Weekend Chops Builder: Piano Giants of Jazz - Erroll Garner

August 5, 2016

Erroll Garner: “Erroll's Bounce”

[This article first appeared in the April 1977 issue of Contemporary Keyboard magazine.]

Erroll Garner, who died in January at the age of 53, was one of the great mavericks of jazz piano. Unlike the vast majority of jazz musicians, he remained totally unable to read music; his compositions, of which "Misty" was by far the most famous, had to be transcribed for him by others. As Nat Pierce, one of Garner's closest pianist friends, told me, "He wasn't a piano player in the strict sense, but he mastered a totally unorthodox technique. He would beat the keyboard to death, using all the wrong fingering—where you were supposed to put the thumb under, he might just keep using the index finger—but out would come all those gorgeous melodies. Some of his introductions alone could have been made into symphonies."

During the 1940s, when Garner was recording extensively on a freelance basis, I was fortunate enough to be able to secure his services for a session I produced at RCA. The highlight of the session for me was an original called "Erroll's Bounce," which seemed typical of his elfin personality. The introduction was a characteristic mood setter, with four-note chords throughout in both hands, each one crisply articulated. The triplets in contrary motion leading into the chorus launch him on a melody that, despite its minor key, somehow has a major feeling. Observe the grace notes before the F# in the repeated phrase, followed by a downward jump into a sharply executed B. This deceptively simple series of notes constitutes a definitive Garner statement. Observe, too, the contrast between the downward moving right-hand chords in bars 13, 14, and 15 and the rising octaves in the left hand.

The release is melodic in the truest Garner sense, with its five-note phrase that descends chromatically, accompanied by a firm series of left-hand chords. In the seventh bar of the release, the five-note phrase is telescoped so that it takes up only two beats, in triplets, instead of the three or four occupied previously. Rhythmically, Garner was the complete master of the art of syncopation. Melodically, particularly on his ballads, he was an unabashed romantic. And harmonically, he was subtle and surprising within a relatively traditional framework.

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