George Shearing Quintet with String Choir
Analysed by Robert Walton
Most professional singers make it a practice to do a thorough sound and familiarization check before performing on stage, especially one that’s new to them. Dame Vera Lynn was no exception and lucky enough to have the expertise of her fastidious husband Harry Lewis who always made sure that everything was just perfect. I was her pianist in the mid-60s when the three of us entered the Stoke-on-Trent venue to give it the once over.
As we walked in, the public address system was playing what I can only describe as “music from heaven”. I immediately went into a kind of trance and my goose pimples became instantly active. Vera and Harry couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, but I was in another world transfixed to the spot. After making enquiries the engineer in the control room informed me it was the title track of George Shearing’s album “Touch Me Softly”. Near the end of Shearing’s gorgeous arrangement, ravishing strings go literally into overdrive in what I call “tone apart” harmony. Let me explain. On the piano, the right hand plays the chord of say G, while the left hand plays the chord of F (both 2nd inversions). Play them together and the dissonance it creates is absolutely mind-blowing, especially when you move them up and down in tones. (Much more daring than say Debussy or Ravel). When I discovered these discords, I thought they were pure Bartok but a Royal Schools of Music professor insisted they were just borrowed from jazz.
Why do “far out” harmonies appeal to us? Of course, our DNA has a lot to answer for. On my father’s side, their whole passion was music. His aunt was an excellent piano teacher (she dumped me because I wouldn’t practise) while his mother was an incredible sight reader. But it wasn’t all one sided. My mother was a Chopin fanatic.
Guilt can be part of it too. After purchasing Ted Heath’s Strike Up The Band with its abrasive high brass, I remember feeling guilty (almost naughty) because my parents might object. After my classical music training, to be suddenly swept up by all this dissonance was a life changing experience. Overnight it seemed I had found the key to a new world of sound. The discords dug deep into my soul literally hurting the senses but what a discovery. At first it jars but gradually one becomes accustomed to paradise!
A brilliant solo violin begins this brief concerto-like introduction in a thrilling way that totally gripped me. The opening of Touch Me Softly is actually a trailblazer for what’s to come. As soon as the Quintet chords are sounded, you know you’re in Shearingland and when the strings enter for the first time, the nimble fingers of the maestro confirm something special is on its way. This is no Tatum or Peterson but a very gentle George with his own tasteful piano, keeping everything as musical and relaxed as possible with overall control by Milton Raskin. This section is virtually repeated with some more dreamy like doodling from Shearing.
Then what we’ve all been waiting for, the symphonic strings suddenly erupt into a dazzling display of a sort of frenzied fusion between Schoenberg and Farnon, creating one of the most haunting sounds I’ve ever heard. It’s a sheer miracle that this very small part of the track happened to be playing that day in Stoke. The coda is an extension of the opening. I wonder how you reacted when you first encountered those Shearing strings?
“Touch Me Softly”. George Shearing
Capitol LP T1874
Back in June 2011 a week of light music was on the airwaves. Of particular interest to me was a concert given by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on a Sunday afternoon with works by John Ansell - The Shoe and other composers.
Is there anyway of obtaining this music?
Daniel Simon from Salford Lancashire
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