A Reunion Tribute to Erroll Garner (Produced by Ernest McCarty Jr.)

June 13, 2018
  • Ernest McCarty Jr. -bass
  • Jimmie Smith – Drums
  • Geri Allen – Piano
  • Noel Quintana – Congas

By Bob Protzman

If you enjoyed just about every note played by the one and only pianist Erroll Garner as this writer did (remember especially the fabulous Concert By the Sea album?) you need to know immediately that you will hear no Garner here.

You WILL hear some outstanding piano, however, from Ms. Allen, and some excellent versions of standards, aka the Great American Songbook, as well as a Latin-ized “Misty,” a lovely ballad and Garner’s most memorable original tune.

The connection…or connections…to Garner are McCarty and Smith, who along with the late noted conquero Jose Mangual, played with Garner (1921-1977) from 1970 until Garner’s death. Thus McCarty and Smith’s idea to do what would be a 50th reunion/remembrance/tribute.

Another historic element is that the two-day recording session was supervised by George Heid Jr., whose father had the same role for Garner’s very first recording December 30, 1937 in downtown Pittsburgh.

Appropriately, McCarty and Smith did this CD in suburban Pittsburgh, a city well known for producing a host of great jazz musicians. The guys got so excited reminiscing about their own story that unfortunately they neglected mentioning Geri Allen in their liner notes. They didn’t know how lucky they were to get her. She died about a year later of cancer after a fabulous 35-year career.

A dynamic, commanding player, as well as composer, arranger, and educator, she was director of Jazz Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, and on the faculties at several of the most highly regarded U.S. jazz schools.

Her academic credentials and the fact that she played with everyone who was anyone earned her the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship Award. Also a bandleader, she influenced and likely inspired women jazz musicians by example and as employer.

Not to dismiss the others in the group here, each of whom is a fine player who also worked with some ol’ jazz’s most prominent names, but Allen deserves the attention. She lives up to it by making this CD very much worth hearing Garner had a Jones for Latin music – especially the mambo (his “Mambo Carmel” is played here)—so with Quintana on bongos it’s appropriate for this project to have a strong Latin flavor.

The quartet jumps right into it jam-like with a rousing “Caravan,” alternately mambo, medium and uptempo straight-ahead jazz, soul, even a bit of a funky feel. Lively 4-bar exchanges among all are highlights.

An exciting departure comes two tunes later on: “Gemini,’’ a tune popularized in the hard bop era of the ‘60s by Hall of Fame alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderly. This writer (and probably all or most colleagues) assumed Adderly wrote it, but surprisingly it’s credited to Garner here. Allen and friends play the heck out of it.

“Autumn Leaves,” Joseph Kosma’s ballad for the ages, showcases Allen’s versatility as she employs a light touch, punctuated by lovely flourishes. Her mates support her sensitively and fully.

“Get Happy” is a natural here, since happy is the way Garner played—joyful, actually—and the way all who heard him felt. A fleet-fingered Allen swings merrily, assisted by Quintana’s rapid-fire congas.

Ballad fans of a certain era used to describe soloists and groups as “playing pretty.” That applies to the entire group on Johnny Burke and Jimmy van Heusen’s “It Could Happen to You.”

Finally, on Garner’s universally popular “Misty” Allen makes no attempt to match his approach. She and McCarty open in a duet, and the group goes on to complete a respectful interpretation.

Chances are Garner would have been pleased with much of most of the music here.

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