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Ya gotta give mad props to an 83-year-old musician who still tours six months out of the year. But when venerable jazz pianist and gentlemanly Englishman George Shearing had to cancel our first interview appointment because he was medicated into the ozone on pain pills due to some unspecified injury, I was worried for him. Geezers and Vicodin would seem to be a bad mix, a combination you wouldn't want to test unless something seriously fucked-up was going on. And so I felt very relieved when Shearing sounded clear-headed and lucid the next day, even if he didn't quite understand what I meant when I asked him if he'd copped a rad buzz the day before.
Active onstage and in the studio since the 1930s (holy shit!), Shearing is one of the few living jazz musicians who can lay claim to experiencing first-hand almost every movement in the genre from swing to bop to cool to Latin through fusion—not to mention being a direct participant in most of those movements. This guy has toured with Stephane Grappelli and jammed with the architects of the 52nd Street bop scene in the '40s; sold mega-units of records as leader of his own quintet and recorded with the likes of Nat "King" Cole, Nancy Wilson and Peggy Lee in the '50s and '60s; formed a fruitful partnership with Mel Torme in the '70s and '80s (Shearing performs a tribute concert to his old friend Saturday night at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts) and has continued to maintain a successful recording and touring schedule to this day. Born blind as Sean Hannity, Shearing has nonetheless seen and done it all. And, like most old people still capable of doing so, he has a thing or two to say about a thing or two.
"I think what they're doing today is spending too much time on gimmicks and trying to figure out how to sell the music," Shearing complains of the contemporary jazz scene in his ultraproper English accent. "I think if you stay with one thing, it'll sell itself, whether that style is Dixieland or swing or what have you. Stay with jazz as we have it, and you'll be fine. I think the days of [major movements in jazz] are behind us. I think people were looking to explore the elements of particular styles to their fullest and live with it, but I believe now we're all working within these existing styles. I'll bite my words if someone comes up with something that's a bit new, but I think those days are over."
Shearing knows from jazz if he knows anything. His quintets—most notably featuring Chuck Wayne on guitar, Marjorie Hyams on vibes, John Levy on bass and Denzil Best on drums—created the creamy, elegant Shearing Sound, which transcended jazz in the '50s and crossed over to sell millions to mainstream audiences. He was inspired early on by Milt Buckner, best known as the pianist and arranger for the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and for developing the so-called "locked-hands" style on the piano, playing parallel block chords. The style has been Shearing's trademark throughout most of his extended career, although he has employed it in jazz of just about every conceivable stripe. Perhaps Shearing's most impressive work has been as an interpreter of ballads. His touch on the keyboard can be so light as to whisper; his innate sense of harmony exudes grace and beauty.
"I like pure tones," he says. "I don't care too much for screaming and noises, funk. 'My God, let's be as funky as we can.' You can't get a Thelonious Monk composition and play it with a Guy Lombardo sound. You have to keep some purity of the instrument in line."
Shearing's latest collaboration is The Rare Delight of You, with fortysumpin' swing guitarist/vocalist John Pizzarelli. The album has garnered rave reviews for the duo's musical chemistry, which meshed seamlessly, particularly for a pair of musicians of such disparate styles, backgrounds and generations.
"He's got the voice, and I've got the piano, and we try a few songs and say, 'Let's record them,'" Shearing relates of his relationship with Da Pizz. "We get together, and we think the same way, and it's very natural, very easy to make an album. We've been friends for years, and his father, Bucky Pizzarelli, is a fine guitarist. I've known them both for a long time, and we don't live very far from each other."
Lastly, there's no way you're gonna let a guy who was born before the talkies hit the theaters get out of a conversation without touching on his secret for longevity, right? So, whassa story, Gorgeous Georgie?
"My motto has been 'Why should any man work while he has the health and strength to lie in bed?' Unfortunately, I believe that a little too much for my wife's liking," jokes the man who keeps a busier schedule than most musicians half his age. "I'm still working about six months a year, and this year I'll be 84. It's time to start taking it a little bit easy. But I'll take it any way I can get it."George Shearing performs at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach, (562) 985-7000. Sat., 8 p.m. $105-$120. All ages.
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