Let us begin simply by saying that Don Shirley is a
pianist. With all that this term implies, it is used
here in its fullness to designate the stature of
this musician. The kind of piano he ploys may now
be, and most certainly and more acutely will be in
the future, open to debate.
We would not be inclined to categorize him as a
classical or as a jazz musician although with the
public that is likely to happen. We would go further
and say that his kind of music does not seem to
hinge between the two although this is the
designation he is likely to receive by many. We
would go one step further and say that of all the
things that might be consigned him, he is most
nearly to become the artist embodying the suffusion
of the classics and the modern.
These are strong statements to make. They would be
so if the artist here considered were an established
one. It is dangerous to claim them when he is
beginning the ascent. We allow his musical history
and what you will hear in this and forthcoming
albums to be the proof.
In considering his background, you should know that
his first teacher was his mother, that he was born
in Kingston, Jamaica on January 27, 1927, that at
the age of nine he was extended on invitation to
study theory with Mittolovski at the Leningrad
Conservatory of Music, that he later studied with
the famous organist Conrad Bernier, and that he
studied advanced composition with both Bernier and
Dr. Thaddeus Jones at the Catholic University of
America in Washington, D. C.
Shirley mode his concert debut with the Boston
"Pops" Symphony Orchestra in Boston June 25, 1945,
with Dean Dixon as guest conductor. In 1949 he
received an invitation from the Haitian government
to play at the Exposition Internationale du Bi-Centenaire
De Port-au-Prince followed by a request from
Archbishop Le Goise and President Estime for a
repeat performance the following week. Upon Arthur
Fiedler's recent trip to Chicago, Shirley was again
extended on invitation to appear with the orchestra
in June 1954.
With such a background, it is evident that Shirley
is a highly respected legitimate musician possessing
great technical skill and an innate musical ability.
He displays also great tenderness and emotional
depth which render his performances inspiring.
Included in this album are "I Cover The Waterfront",
"No Two People", " Secret Love", "The Man I Love",
"Love Is Here To Stay", "Dancing On The Ceiling",
"They Can't Take That Away From Me", "Answer Me My
Love", a medley of tunes from "New Faces", and "My
Funny Valentine". We will place our focus on four of
"I Cover The Waterfront" will remind you of a
Debussy or Ravel. It has their qualities of
delicacy, contemplation and sensitivity. There is a
certain majesty to it, too. His ability to 'concertoize'
this makes something more of it than a lover
lamenting a lost love on the waterfront and becomes
instead, a personal experience with the sea . . .the
water becomes the main theme of this, much like La
In "The Man I Love", there is the sweep of a
symphony orchestra. This is because Shirley plays
with great amplitude . . .the kind of vigor found in
only the best of pianists. Beginning on "Rhapsody in
Blue" the melody soon diffuses into the flavor of a
Gershwin prelude. Using the climactic points in both
pieces, Shirley is able to highly dramatize the
opening chords of "The Man I Love". He has so
cleverly incorporated the well-known Gershwin themes
that the melodic line carries forward more strongly.
It is perhaps this tune that serves ,most fully to
indicate his exceptional ability as
arranger-composer: In the."
middle, the piece switches to cocktail beat . . .a
polite swing. Last it becomes a "taking off point"
for an exciting fugue-toccata treatment.
Most times a medley is just show tunes played again
but in this "New Faces" medley the essence of the
play has been so well kept intact that wherever an
audience hears Shirley play this, it is completely
delighted. The arrangement is bright. It is gay. It
is fresh. It retains that " new penny" sound. "Love
is a Simple Thing" begins and ends the medley and it
is both light and climactic as is necessary. This is
thoroughly enjoyable music.
One of the favored standards, "My Funny Valentine"
receives especially good interpretation
by Don Shirley with fine bowing by bassist Richard
Davis. He conveys more of the Pagliacci tragedy of
this melody than we have ever before heard. The
beauty and the sadness are real. The tonal effects
are particularly effective here with the bowing
laying a nice background for the piano notes to be
Shirley's musical taste is so consistently refined
that he seems to have selected always the correct
musical enclosure for each of the compositions in
the album. You will notice that a mood is
established akin to chamber music in several of the
tunes such as "My Secret Love" and "Love is Here to
Stay". Each one of these melodies has a definite
form although Shirley has varied the structure.
As a composer, Don Shirley has to his credit four
organ symphonies, a group of small pieces for piano,
two string quartets and a piano concerto. He has
written a full variation concerto against Ravel's
"Bolero" much the same as Rachmaninoff did with the
"Paganini Variations". It is his ambition to record
this with full symphony orchestra. A nation-wide
concert tour is his next venture and you will, we
are sure, want to hear this fine artist in person.