There are some times that packaging can be misleading, and for that reason, sometimes it's necessary to look a little closer at the packaging and figure out exactly what you're getting. The European public domain box set "George Shearing Quintet: Classic Album Collection" is a great example of a true treasure that you could easily overlook if you chose to ignore it because of the pretty but uninspired-looking cover art. Hidden inside this unassuming packaging are four classic Shearing Quintet LP's from the 1950's in their entirety and in the same order as the original LP's.
The albums you get are "An Evening With the George Shearing Quintet" (1951), "I Hear Music" (1952), "The Shearing Spell" (1955), and the mighty "Black Satin" (1957). The two earliest LP's have to my knowledge not received a CD release anywhere else.
The George Shearing Quintet was a jazz combo fronted by British pianist George Shearing who was blind from birth. Shearing is currently 90 years old and still going strong. His quintet developed a pleasant and instantly recognizable vibe-and-piano sound that became a huge hit with audiences in the 1950's and racked up several charting albums for them in the late 50's and early 60's. They also recorded albums with Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole in the early 1960's. Shearing's quintet featured a lineup of piano, vibes, guitar, bass, and drums, and had a foot in jazz and a foot in easy listening. The foot in easy listening pretty much got them branded as sellouts by much of the jazz community, especially as they started mining it further over the course of the 1950's. The orchestral-backed album Black Satin in particular was a breakthrough for them that went all the way to #13 on the charts. To give you an idea of how much they became part of the pop culture landscape, if you watch the Beatles film "A Hard Day's Night," you will see the George Shearing album "White Satin" (1960) used as a prop in the movie; look for that next time you watch that movie.
The first two albums in this box, "An Evening With..." and "I Hear Music," are quite similar to each other in that they offer a mellow combo sound that is still pretty much straightforward classic jazz, but features that recognizable coordinated piano-vibe sound. The sound jumps back and forth between pleasant uptempo and lush beauty, and covers a good bit of ground in the process. "The Breeze and I" sounds like you're standing by a waterfall; "In a Chinese Garden" (Parts 1 and 2) sound like classic Eastern paintings of lotus gardens on bamboo without falling for trite "Oriental" clichés; "The Continental", "Jumpin' with Symphony Sid," and "Swedish Pastry" all have a nice swing to them while staying somewhat subdued.
And that's just the first album! There's even more of the same on "I Hear Music," although that album stays a little more uptempo throughout. I Hear Music features mellow versions of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You", and "How High the Moon". "Pick Yourself Up" has a really "busy" feel and memorable opening riff, "Bop, Look, and Listen" lives up to its name with its swaggering "Look both ways at the busy intersection" alertness. "So This Is Cuba?" goes rhumba on us, and "How Trix?" and "Night Flight" end the album mellow and bouncy.
My favorite of the four albums is "The Shearing Spell," which finds the group still playing as a small band, but with a more seductive, understated, lilting sound that lives up to the album's name. The opener, "Autumn in New York", is, well, spellbinding to say the least. The album veers into Latin sounds with "Strange" and "Out of this World", and more jumping moments like "Cuban Fantasy" and the interlude of "Yesterdays", but then returns to this stilling, mesmerizing sound that just makes you want to drop whatever you're doing and just soak in it. I would recommend the box for this album alone.
The final album, "Black Satin," pulls out all the stops and puts a full orchestra behind the combo. As mentioned, "Black Satin" is the album for which they are best remembered today, along with its even more successful follow-up "White Satin," which isn't featured here but is paired with "Black Satin" on other CD reissues. This orchestral album pretty much leaves jazz behind in favor of light orchestral music ala Percy Faith. Their trademark piano-vibe sound works beautifully with the lush orchestra. The album has its bouncier moments like "What Is There To Say" and "As Long As I Live/Let's Live Again" that get washed over with strings here and there, its easy Latin rhythms like "Black Stain" and "If I Should Lose You", and its straight-up orchestral gushiness like "One Morning in May". In my opinion the orchestra is maybe a little too over-the-top at times on this album, and it seems to me that by the time they got to "White Satin" they got the balance a little better. But still, it offers the same variety of tempos and moods as the previous albums on the box set, only with the addition of the orchestra. The closer "As Long As I Live/Let's Live Again" in particular is definitely a classic that's not to be missed--that track shows up on the bachelor pad compilation Music for a Bachelor's Den.
I'm really amazed at how nice this box set sounds. The entire album is very nicely and uniformly mastered with very clear sound and no distortion or traces of the typical limitations of the recording equipment of the time. The early albums from 1951 and 1952 in particular sound amazing for albums recorded in mono in 1951 and 1952. The box itself is three regular jewel cases in a cardstock sleeve, although my copy's sleeve is wrapped too tight so it makes it hard to take the CD's out. Since the info in the jewel cases is little more than a reprise of the info on the box, I just took the CD's out and put them in slip sleeves so that they would be easier to get ahold of.
Again, this little box set is an absolute treasure in disguise that Bachelor Pad collectors won't want to miss, especially with the rare "An Evening With..." and "I Hear Music" being made available here on CD at last. I've listened to it over and over while working and studying, and over time found myself humming along with the songs as that lovely and memorable piano-vibe sound plunks away. The price is right too!