George Shearing and Latin Jazz: More Than a Footnote


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Pianist George Shearing died this past Monday February 14, 2011 due to heart failure, invoking an honest outpouring of love for his work and a resurgence of attention upon his impressive career. Shearing enjoyed immense popularity throughout his career, finding a balance between artistry and public appeal. His quintet that fueled his work throughout the fifties and sixties was a major attraction in the jazz world, taking his performances around the world. During the seventies, his collaborations with artists such as the Montgomery Brothers, Jim Hall, and Hank Jones displayed another side to Shearing's musicality. He signed onto a high profile contract with Concord Records in 1979, leading to more memorable recordings and several Grammy Awards. He remained a crowd favorite at jazz festivals throughout the nineties and 2000s, and he recorded in a variety of formats. Up until his death, Shearing remained an important figure on the jazz scene that influenced numerous musicians and pleased audiences worldwide.

Shearing is best known for his straight-ahead swing and lyrical compositions like “Lullaby Of Birdland," but he actively engaged Latin Jazz throughout his career. Unfortunately, most descriptions of Shearing's work marginalize his time playing Latin Jazz, regarding it as a minor excursion in his musical lifetime. Granted, Shearing spent the greater part of his career focused upon straight-ahead jazz that lie firmly planted in a very traditional lineage. While the size of Shearing's Latin Jazz output can't match the mass nature of his straight-ahead work, it certainly stands on equal footing in terms of quality. Shearing's Latin Jazz output overflows with artistic integrity and displays a distinctly different side to Latin Jazz. More importantly, his recordings and performances were very influential in the movement towards small group combo work in Latin Jazz. Shearing's Latin Jazz work deserves a spot in the history of the genre and it certainly merits a major focus in any discussion of his career.

Shearing's Latin Jazz Recordings On Capitol Records

While Latin music plays a part in different era of Shearing's output, a number of recordings for Capitol Records during the fifties and early sixties provide the best example of his Latin Jazz approach. Shearing released his first collection of purely Latin Jazz tracks in 1956 on Latin Escapade, an album based in Afro-Cuban rhythms that complimented his core quintet with conguero Armando Peraza. Among a string of straight-ahead releases, Shearing returned in 1958 with Latin Lace, another album that focused strictly upon Latin Jazz. In the same year, Shearing delivered Latin Affair, a seeming extension of his previous recording that retained Peraza but included some different musicians in his core quintet. It would be three years until Shearing returned to his Latin Jazz side on Capitol Records, spending the time producing traditional classics like The Shearing Touch, White Satin, and his collaboration with vocalist Peggy Lee, Beauty And The Beat. In 1961, Shearing delivered Mood Latino, another Afro-Cuban focused recording that complimented Peraza's work with additional percussionists and a flute soloist. The following year, Shearing stepped outside of his Afro-Cuban comfort zone to explore the growing popularity of Brazilian rhythms on Shearing Bossa Nova. In his last Latin based Capitol recording, Shearing moved back to Afro-Cuban rhythms with Latin Rendezvous. Although a number of Latin tracks from additional albums exist, these recordings provide clear and focused looks at his approach to Latin Jazz.

An Emphasis Upon Compositions And Arrangements

Shearing made major strides into Latin Jazz in fifties, after New York based mambo orchestras had embraced bebop as a major part of their sound; in contrast, Shearing's Latin Jazz approach downplayed the spontaneous improvisation emphasis of bop and focused on structured arrangements. At this point, his core quintet had developed a successful performance practice that leaned upon an almost classical sense of melodic movement and development. As a result, his Latin Jazz work had a chamber jazz feel that followed a highly composed direction. The intertwining lines of the vibes and guitar, combined with melodic duets between the piano and vibes diluted some of the harsh rhythmic edge traditionally associated with Latin music. At the same time, Shearing's compositions sat firmly rooted around the clave, with rhythmic breaks and chordal vamps providing that certain swing. Shearing's famous “locked-hands" technique provided thick block chords that added a percussive edge when necessary. Shearing employed traditional conventions of the music and his writing reflected structures being used by established Latin Jazz groups. While the East Coast dance halls were filled with the charging aggressive sound of the mambo bands, Shearing embraced a more delicate and somewhat safer approach that sat upon a knowledgeable foundation.

Shearing's Elegant And Logical Approach To Improvisation

Composition and arrangement served as the major focus for Shearing's Latin Jazz work, leaving only minimal room for the pianist's improvisations. In some cases, Shearing would restrain from improvising at all in a song, letting the elegant beauty of the arrangement speak for itself. When Shearing did improvise in a Latin Jazz context, his performance generally reflected the cool and refined mood of the arrangement. He often avoided the tension filled syncopations and wild flurries most commonly associated with Latin Jazz in favor of safer, more accessible ideas. Shearing's improvisations tended to sound composed at times, as his statements drew upon the same compositional concepts that drove his arrangements. He repeated ideas and extended the range of his thoughts with embellishment and variation. At the same time, Shearing had definitely heard Afro-Cuban musicians; he would occasionally pull out a tipico lick that would turn heads. The elegance and logical nature of his artistry ruled the roost during his improvisations though, creating memorable statements that audiences could easily follow.

Armando Peraza—The Heart Of Shearing's Latin Jazz Sound

If Shearing embodied the cool side of his Latin Jazz sound, Peraza brought a healthy dose of Afro-Cuban fire and intensity to the group. While many small jazz groups haphazardly added a conga for a “Latin tinge" during the time, Peraza's presence never seemed “tacked on" or forced upon the quintet for texture. He served as an equal member of the band that expanded the group's potential and grounded their work in authentic Afro-Cuban approaches. He brought a firm and powerful tumbao to Shearing' sound, constantly driving the group with an unstoppable forward motion. Peraza's musicianship bubbles underneath the groove, as he varies his tumbao interactively, leaps into the forefront momentarily for effect, or framed the arrangement with a perfect break. Peraza acted as one of the group's primary soloists, bringing the band's performance to life with vivid statements that crackle with his encyclopedic knowledge of Afro-Cuban culture and tradition. He served as a consultant to Shearing and a musical watchdog, making sure that the pianist's music reflected an unerring respect for the Latin Jazz lineage. Peraza also contribute a number of compositions to Shearing's repertoire, such as “Mambo In Miami" and “Estampa Cubana." Peraza's contributions sat at the core of Shearing's Latin Jazz success, as the percussionist made the perfect collaborator for the insightful pianist.

Latin Jazz As An Important Historical Landmark In Shearing's Musical Life

The impact of these albums, Shearing's live Latin Jazz performances, and his subsequent recorded ventures in Latin Jazz cannot be underestimated. As a proponent of the style, Shearing's high profile popularity in the public eye increased the exposure of Latin Jazz and it certainly introduced Peraza's world-class musicality to a mass audience. Afro-Cuban music also helped Shearing reach a new audience, creating a repertoire that dancers could understand. His recordings have left us with a wealth of ideas and instructions about Latin Jazz arranging that have filtering into younger generations. His impact upon Cal Tjader's work shines brightly, as the two contemporaries must have shared ideas about the music. Shades of Shearing's influence can be seen in modern groups as well, most notably in West Coast conguero Poncho Sanchez. The quintet approach that Shearing popularized in his fifties Latin Jazz recordings made the context viable artistically. It served as a starting point for more intimate Latin Jazz settings and opened the door to groups led by Tjader, Mongo Santamaria, and Willie Bobo in the sixties. What started with Shearing in terms of the small group Latin Jazz context evolved into forward thinking groups like Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band. The impact, ingenuity, and pure artistry of Shearing's Latin Jazz work deserves some serious attention—it's more than a footnote in his career; it sits as an important historical landmark in his overall musical life.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
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