Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Erroll Garner: The Giant Elf

It is easy to do the jazz dichotomy thing for Erroll Garner.  He was nicknamed “The Elf,” but he had a giant sound on the piano.  During his lifetime, he was one of the most visible jazz artists on television and in concert halls, yet he has been largely overlooked by recent filmmakers attempting to tell the jazz story (do the initials K.B. ring a bell?).  For a documentarian, the latter point is a golden opportunity.  Atticus Brady capitalizes on the wealth of archival footage and the admiration of friends and colleagues the pianist-composer left as his legacy in the documentary-profile Erroll Garner: No One Can Hear You Read (trailer here), which releases on DVD today from First Run Features.

In the latter half of the Twentieth Century, if you had only one jazz LP in your collection, it was probably Brubeck’s Time Out, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, or Garner’s Concert by the Sea (all released by Columbia, by the way).  He was enormously popular, playing venues like Carnegie Hall, paving the way for Wynton Marsalis and the rise of curated jazz programming in the 1980’s.  

Read nicely establishes Garner’s remarkable success and his roots in the Pittsburgh jazz scene that also produced Ahmad Jamal, Mary Lou Williams, and Stanley Turrentine. However, with his very title, Brady emphasizes Garner’s status as perhaps the last great ear-trained, non-music reading jazz greats.  It is true, but it hardly seems like the fundamental essence of the man. Indeed, Steve Allen argues Garner had a remarkable harmonic sense and was woefully underappreciated as a composer.  Of course, just about everyone knows at least one Garner standard: “Misty,” the inspiration for countless romances and Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, Play Misty for Me (which happens to be screening this Friday and Saturday at the IFC Center).

Brady talks to a number of colleagues and experts with both musical credibility and name recognition, including Jamal, Allen, the other Allen (Woody), former Garner sideman Ernest McCarty, and Dick Hyman.  More importantly, Brady has confidence in his subject, letting clips of Garner in action play for considerable lengths of time.  That is the good stuff, after all. 

Granted, Read never reinvents the jazz documentary, but who really wants that anyway?  Brisk and entertaining, the hour-long Erroll Garner: No One Can Hear You Read is recommended for jazz lovers and general audiences as an introduction to the man and his music.  It is now available for home viewing from First Run Features.