Friday Music: The George Shearing Quintet
Reconsidering Shearing's approach to easy listening
A Facebook friend recently recommended this 1958 set as a nice calm soundtrack for an evening at home. I’d not heard it before and he’s right — it’s quintessentially unobtrusive music for cocktails, or dinner cleanup, any passive listening setting. Which is, of course, how Shearing was marketed at the time. Still, lurking just beyond the easy-listening veneer are finely wrought musical details to geek out about — the placid union of piano plus vibraphone plus guitar, the fluid way the members of the quintet slide between lead and accompaniment roles, the sparkling solos and intricate counterlines, the understated and beautifully scored arrangements by Billy May.
Shearing began his association with Capitol Records in 1955, with The Shearing Spell. Three albums came out the following year, including the lavishly detailed Black Satin, which is arguably the most classic of the bunch. These established the templates for a slew of subsequent albums, some presenting the Quintet surrounded by lush brass or wind choir accompaniment, some featuring collaborations with singers (Peggy Lee, most famously), some devoted to gently swinging studio-orchestra approximations of Latin rhythm.
Here’s something to consider as you shake (or stir!) up that weekend martini: Between 1955 and 1960, Shearing’s Quintet issued 12 studio albums. Each title had its own theme and distinct sonic signature. Each was a full-scale production — involving arrangers, musicians, copyists, etc. — and each demanded poise and unflappable serenity from the Quintet. Twelve lush, inventive records in five years. For a while there, easy listening was hard work.
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