By 1964,Erroll Garner’s popularity in the U.S. had softened. The jazz pianist had stopped recording for Columbia Records in 1958 during his bitter legal battle with the label over his pay and the company’s unauthorized release of his early work.
To make up the lost income, Garner toured relentlessly, especially abroad. In Europe, sizable concert halls sold out within 48 hours as audiences of mixed ages jammed venues to hear his mischievous approach to standards and such originals as “Misty.” In March 1964, Billboard magazine noted that he had become as popular abroad as Louis Armstrong.
Now Garner’s Nov. 7, 1964, performance at Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw has finally been released in the U.S. for the first time by Mack Avenue. The label worked with the Garner estate, which found the master tapes in its archives.
This new album, “Nightconcert,” follows two recent estate-blessed Garner reissues—the complete 1955 “Concert by the Sea” (2015) and “Ready Take One” (2016), with previously unreleased studio material from 1967, 1969 and 1971.
Garner’s Amsterdam concert began at midnight, since the Concertgebouw had hosted a classical performance earlier in the evening. Despite the late hour, all 2,000 seats were filled, including the hall’s three unusual stepped galleries on stage.
The music is remarkable for several reasons, chief among them Garner’s lengthy and elaborately disguised solo introductions. During concerts, Garner did not share song lists with his bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Kelly Martin. Instead, he made song choices on the fly, masking them with elaborately improvised openings. Garner’s audiences and fellow musicians were left to guess what familiar song would emerge, thrilling his fans and leaving Calhoun and Martin just seconds to jump in.
On the 16 tracks of “Nightconcert” (1 hour and 20 minutes of music), Garner’s piano introductions are especially robust and ambiguous. A dreamy 34-second Debussy-like opening melts away to reveal the movie ballad “Laura.” On another song, Garner invents a 64-second gospel-stride opening that turns into “When Your Lover Has Gone.”
Another highlight is Garner’s inclusion of “All Yours,” his lesser-known 1963 theme written for “A New Kind of Love,” a film starring Paul Newman. Garner opens the song with a 58-second solo sprinkled with flecks of “I Surrender Dear.” The movie ballad is easily on par with “Misty,” his 1955 hit.
Most songs on “Nightconcert” also feature daring treatments by Garner. For instance, “My Funny Valentine” lasts more than eight minutes and is brilliantly intertwined with the tip-toeing feel of Neal Hefti’s “Girl Talk.”
What made Garner so captivating for sophisticated European ears was his swing and rococo chord configurations. Self-taught, Garner as a teen had been denied admittance to the musicians’ union in Pittsburgh because he couldn’t read music. Upset, he vowed to play like “a whole band.”
Garner made good on his promise. As pianist Dick Hyman explained in his 1999 “Century of Jazz Piano” instructional CD-DVD series, Garner’s magical “sound” typically featured his right hand playing the melody in octaves, with two or three notes filling in to emulate a brass section. Meanwhile, his left hand played the lower keys as if strumming a rhythm guitar.
Garner also was a highly engaging stage presence. Listening to the music on “Nightconcert,” one imagines the sharply dressed and diminutive performer perched on a telephone book, his hair lacquered with pomade to give it a reflective shine. We hear his expressive grunts in places and visualize him turning to the audience periodically with a confident, elfin grin.
Less than a year after the Concertgebouw performance, Garner signed a deal with MGM Records to distribute albums recorded on his newly formed Octave label. But despite assuming full control of his recording output, Garner, up until his death at 53 in 1977, never regained his 1950s and early ’60s popularity at home.
With “Nightconcert,” we now have a Garner performance spring-loaded with his most captivating keyboard tricks. As evidenced by the recording, he made sure his fans left delighted.
Mr. Myers, the author of “Anatomy of a Song” (Grove), is a Wall Street Journal contributor who writes daily about music and the arts at JazzWax.com.