Red Garland Trio

Swingin’ on the Korner
Elemental Music 5990426

Class always wins out at the end. At least that’s what happened with pianist Red Garland, who experienced an artistic and critical renaissance in the late 1970s until his death in 1984. Dallas-born Garland (1923-1984), who was best known for his stint with Miles Davis’ first classic quintet of 1955-1958, hadn’t arrived out of nowhere and didn’t disappear when his place was taken in the Davis band. Garland was the epitome of the mainstream Jazz pianist who could with aplomb play anything from Bop to ballads to Blues. The 16 tracks on this two CD-set, were culled from performances over a five-day period at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner club in 1977. As an additional bonus, the gig not only reunited Garland with his old foil from the Davis band, drummer Philly Joe Jones, but also includes the once-in-a-lifetime addition of Jazz’s most storied walker, bassist Leroy Vinnegar.

Perhaps because of this unique trio configuration or the fact that Garland had recently been “rediscovered” after a recording hiatus of a decade or so when he remained in Dallas, the pianist is in relaxed fettle and stretches tunes out to his heart’s content. Additionally, the evocative program ranges all over Jazz history and his own. Included are tunes associated with the Davis period such as “Billy Boy” and “On Green Dolphin Street”, Jazz standards “Bag’s Groove” and “Dear Old Stockholm”, and this-side-of-MOR choices like “On A Clear Day”. Garland, who was the house pianist in a Philadelphia club and worked with Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins before joining Davis, honed his craft in the pre-modern nightclub era and his numerous trio and quintet records in the 1950s and 1960s outlined his vast repertoire and ability to literally play anything in the modern-mainstream bag. That plus his later extended gigs in Dallas night clubs gave him an almost effortless facility to interpret any material.

Understated at first, but quickly inflated with dramatic gestures and asides, every tune Garland touches here is expanded with block chords and often includes allusions to other compositions. The result is a collection of out-and-out foot-tappers. Listen to this formula snap into place as early as track one, “Love for Sale”, and continue with variations through until the concluding “It’s All Right with Me/The Theme”. A sophisticated master of logical variations to advance the narrative, Garland also never loses track of the head. Craftily suspending time his comping alongside Vinnegar’s rock-solid pacing and underneath Jones’ showy rhythmic expositions keeps the theme available even if not directly alluded to throughout.

Initially flowery and laid-back, very quickly Garland kicks the piece into doubled-timed overdrive, moving it upwards to staccato at breakneck speed, but always retaining the melody. The bassist’s double and triple-stopping doesn’t disrupt the proceedings, and even when Jones moves into his most domineering mode, Garland jabs stiletto-like melody phrases among the rhythm to maintain equilibrium. The pianist’s, and by extension the trio’s, triumph, is that each track is transformed with a similar go-for-broke strategy. But any band that can strip the hackneyed and hoariness from “Autumn Leaves” to make it a thrilling swinger; or reupholster “On Green Dolphin Street” with triple stride actions so that affirmations and finger-snapping arises spontaneously, obviously knows how to present a gripping program.

If Swingin’ on the Korner does have a weakness, it’s actually the same as its strength. Except for some real obscurities such as the move theme “If I’m Lucky” and a couple of Kenny Dorham lines, the expected nature of the programs makes one wish Garland had turned his talents to interpreting less familiar songs. Then there’s the matter of “Straight No Chaser”. Between Jones’ insensitive pounding throughout and Garland’s theatrical injection of swing and pop motifs into the sparse melody, the piece nearly expires. Monk’s created his compositions to be interpreted in a specific way, and this rendition almost negates all of the tune’s Monkish qualities.

However one can’t criticize a record for not being something. Instead it can be celebrated for what it is. Unlike some contemporary mainstreamers who sound as if they studied Bop, swing and Blues to such an extent that they’ve sucked the life out of those forms, Garland’s playing was always alive with new possibilities. Plus with the ranks of pianists who first expressed these fundamentals thinning daily, and only a finite number of their works available, a hearty helping of 16 top-brand creations is welcome and should be celebrated.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: CD1: 1. Love for Sale 2. I Wish I Knew 3. It’s Impossible 4. Billy Boy 4. Dear Old Stockholm 5. If I’m Lucky 6. Blues in Bebop 7. On Green Dolphin Street CD2: 1. Straight No Chaser 2. On A Clear Day 3. The Christmas Song 4. The Best Things In Life Are Free 5. Never Let Me Go 6. Autumn Leaves 7. Bags’ Groove 8. It’s All Right with Me/The Theme

Personnel: Red Garland (piano); Leroy Vinnegar (bass) and Philly Joe Jones (drums)