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Monterey on my mind, Erroll Garner in my ears

Columbia Records
Columbia Records

There are few places on the planet I find more enchanting than the Monterey Peninsula.
A good part of its appeal lies in the region’s long-standing association in my mind with the Monterey Jazz Festival, which has been a part of my life for going on two decades. There are other attractions, to be sure – the Steinbeck connection of Cannery Row, the calm evenings strolling Carmel, the run down the rocky coast to Big Sur and lunch at Nepenthe’s. Visit the aquarium, run the half marathon, hit the wineries, explore the history.
The weather there, however, truly reigns distinctive in my mind. The darker-green hue of the grass and hills, the trees slumped by generations in the wind, the way the fog rolls in to obscure the blue sky for a time before retreating. And then there is the bay and ocean, always present and sounding and soothing.
Sad to say, I am not among those blessed souls who actually get to live in the Monterey area. I can never visit it enough, at least not physically.
After all, there is always Erroll Garner.
There were but a handful of jazz albums in my parents’ collection during my formative years on the East Coast and Midwest but Garner’s “Concert by the Sea” was among them. I can recall as a youth being intrigued by the cover photo, that spry young woman in her red jacket seemingly reveling in the natural wonders of the rough hewn shore and pounding surf.
I had only the vaguest notion of where Carmel, California, was and certainly never suspected that I’d ever go there. In my ’70s experience, California was that far-flung edge of the republic that produced all the TV, movies and music. No one I knew had ever been there.
Happy to say, that changed and it was shortly after my first trip to the Monterey Peninsula 20-odd years ago that I bought my own copy of “Concert by the Sea.” It remains a personal favorite for reasons that transcend the music – there’s just something about the disc that, more than any other, evokes for me Carmel and its environs.
“Concert by the Sea” remains indelibly associated with the West Coast sound of the 1950s and ranks among the top-selling jazz albums of all time, very much in the category of a “Time Out.” There are issues with it: the album’s Wikipedia entry notes that the “acoustics were poor and the piano somewhat out of tune. The balance of instruments on the recording is also poor: the bass (Eddie Calhoun) and drums (Denzil Best) are receded.” (Make sure you pick up a remastered CD.) Also, it wasn’t really recorded as the cover boasted in Carmel, as Will Friedwall noted in a 2009 article.

On Sept. 19, 1955, Garner performed (in a converted church) at Fort Ord, an army base near Carmel, at the behest of disc jockey and impresario Jimmy Lyons. Martha Glaser, who served as Garner's personal manager for nearly his entire career, happened to be backstage when she noticed a tape recorder running. It turned out that the show was being taped – without Garner's knowledge – by a jazz fan and scholar named Will Thornbury, strictly for the enjoyment of himself and his fellow servicemen. Glaser told him, "I'll give you copies of every record Erroll ever made, but I can't let you keep that tape."
She took it back to New York (carrying it on her lap), where she assembled it into album form, titled it "Concert by the Sea," and then played it for George Avakian, who ran the jazz department at Columbia Records.
When Columbia released "Concert by the Sea" a few months later, this early live 12-inch LP was a runaway sensation. It became the No. 1 record of Garner's 30-year career and one of the most popular jazz albums of all time.
It's not hard to hear why: From the first notes onward, Garner plays like a man inspired – on fire, even. He always played with a combination of wit, imagination, amazing technical skill and sheer joy far beyond nearly all of his fellow pianists, but on this particular night he reached a level exceeding his usual Olympian standard.
"Concert" begins with one of Garner's characteristic left-field introductions – even his bassist and drummer, in this case Eddie Calhoun and Denzil Best, rarely had an idea where he was going to go. The sheer exhilaration of Garner's playing never lets up; even when he slows down the tempo on "How Could You Do a Thing Like That to Me" (a tune also known as Duke Ellington's "Sultry Serenade"), the pianist shows that he's just as adroit at playing spaces as he is at playing notes.

An All About Jazz review sums it up this way: “‘Concert By The Sea’ is a flawed monument of perfection. This recording was a dichotomy, a paradox, where the unlearned not only prevail, but create art of a lasting quality. This is the art.”

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