Jazz music tends to be as complex culturally as it is musically. One expression of this is the suspicion with which it treats popular success: a self-defeating, audience-averse schizoid disorder that it probably inherited, along with much of its harmony, from classical music. Dave Brubeck, for one example, was for many years underappreciated within the jazz community as a (Darius Milhaud-trained) composer and player, likely because he was so widely appreciated outside of it. Part of that speaks to jazz’s complex race dynamics; but what of Nat Cole, whose considerable prowess as a player was minimized, probably as a direct result of his wild popularity as a singer?
Even in the post-fusion and post-sales age, an unassailably great and adventurous musician like Pat Metheny, who experienced genuine popularity at stages in his career, seems driven if not morally obliged to counterbalance the bad karma of success with a parallel history of difficult and “insider” jazz releases (many among his best work), as well as at least one burst of pure inexplicable noise: the famous unobtanium of Zero Tolerance for Silence, hailed by Thurston Moore and Thurston Moore alone. Perhaps Kenny G should consider a two-CD set of incidental reed squeaks to get his portfolio in order.
Add to the very top of this list the great, blind British pianist and composer George Shearing. Shearing lived so long and recorded so much with so many (really, don’t even try to make sense of his discography) that no one even remembers how he used to be dismissed by the hardasses of jazz. He outlasted them all, and emerged as a pioneer in several respects: as the man principally responsible for the sophisticated “locked-hands” piano technique, and also as one of jazz’s earliest adopters of Latin music. For those who hunger for the harmonic and rhythmic richness that jazz offers, but who can sometimes do without its politics of estrangement, Shearing’s bottomless catalogue – whether he’s covering Erik Satie and the Beatles or swinging with Chuck Wayne – is pure gold.
Jazzstock, the region’s long-running collective of jazz players, advocates and promoters, celebrates George Shearing’s 100th birthday (which Shearing only missed seeing by eight years!) on Friday, January 11 with a performance by the John Menegon Quartet. The bassist and Jazzstock founder Menegon is joined by the great pianist John Di Martino, drummer Yoron Israel and, in a move right out of the Shearing quintet playbook, by vibraphonist Steve Nelson. The Jazzstock founder and gaudily credentialed jazz vocalist Teri Roiger will be sitting in as well. Tickets cost $25.
Jazzstock’s George Shearing centennial concert, Friday, January 11, 7:30 p.m., $25, Senate Garage, 4 North Front Street, Kingston; (845) 802-0029, www.jazzstock.com.