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'God's empty chair'

Posted by Mark Feeney  February 14, 2011 10:04 PM

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george-shearing-b-and-w.jpgThose three words above come from Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." They're how Dean Moriarty describes the piano bench George Shearing has just vacated. Dean and Sal Paradise have been in a jazz club listening to a Shearing set "pop-eyed with awe." Now Shearing has gone to join Kerouac and Neal Cassady, the model for Dean. He died Monday, at 91.

Shearing's not alone as a real jazz musician in "On the Road." Slim Gaillard's there, too. If you don't know who Slim Gaillard was -- well, you are in for a treat. Just think of of him as the Lord Gaga of his day, only with a smaller clothing allowance and wilder sense of humor. But Shearing is alone as a real jazz musician who figures in "On the Road" and appears as himself in what sounds like a couple of real movie stinkers from the '50s: "The Big Beat" and "Disc Jockey". In fairness to the latter, its rather delirious cast also includes Sarah Vaughan and the Weavers. Put this movie on-demand! Who needs the Grammys for eager weirdness. (Oh, one other Shearing movie connection? Depending on the angle, he sure could look a lot like Peter Sellers in sunglasses.)

There are many things to be said about Shearing. He was born blind and English (the latter a far worse handicap for a jazz pianist to overcome). He wrote the jazz standard "Lullaby of BIrdland." He came to fame with a marvelously swinging recording of "September in the Rain." He had a lovely, light, casual style that was peripheral to the main development of jazz, but it's often on the periphery that happiness happens least complicatedly.

Anyway, you can read all those things about Shearing elsewhere. What I want to call your attention to is something else. In 1974, he made a solo piano album. It's called "My Ship." On the final track, Shearing sings. This is what I want to write about, because during its four-minute-and-thirty-three-second duration Shearing makes time seem to stand still.

It's not as if he does it with his range or amplitude. Sarah Vaughan Shearing wasn't. He had a soft, breathy almost frail singing style: a melodic waft, a quavery sigh. Within its limited range, though, that voice could be achingly affecting. How affecting? The song he sings to such effect is "Send in the Clowns."

No, no, don't laugh. Don't roll your eyes or grind your teeth or think of the greatest hit on the constant tape loop that must be playing in Satan's own piano bar. Definitely don't think of a certain version of the song that Ty has written about with shrewd and rueful fondness. By the time I first heard Shearing's version, about 30 years ago, the song had become a parody of itself: an elegant pencil sketch covered with layers of acrylic impasto. Then I encountered this minor musical miracle. I was lying in a sleeping bag on the living-room floor of my sister's apartment in New York -- it was very late on a Sunday night; I remember this so clearly -- and a murmury emanation came out of the radio, a radio whose volume was already very low. And this song I had always considered borderline laughable was somehow transformed into one of the most beautiful things I'd ever heard.

The wonder of Shearing's version is that it strips away the layers of predictability and sententiousness and bogus emoting that soon enough attached themselves to the song. In fact, the attaching had yet to happen when Shearing recorded it. He had picked up on "Send in the Clowns" right away. It had had its debut, in "A Little Night Music," only months earlier. Really, though, it wouldn't have mattered when Shearing made this recording. Somehow he manages to take Sondheim's music and lyrics and place them outside of time -- and inside the human heart. The memory of bliss can be almost (almost) as satisfying as bliss itself. Or at least it can be when the memory is as unemphatically perfect as Shearing and his piano present it. One of the chief glories of literature is that its characters never age. They remain unbowed by experience. If Dean and Sal ever did grow old, though, I can imagine them listening to Shearing's recording of this song still pop-eyed, but with recognition as well as awe.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

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