from the back album
AN IMPRESSION OF DON SHIRLEY. . . The
word impression is used advisedly. In the
brief area of the back of a record jacket only a few
fragments will fit-- about what makes up this man
and how his music is conjured. It would
require a lengthy book to do justice to this complex
personality. Impressions (plural) might
have been a better world; for, in the many hours we
spend discussing his career and his ideas on musical
communication, the conversations ranged all the way
from gestalt psychology to the origin of the ethnic
spiritual. His is one of the most
fantastically active and far-ranging minds I have
ever encountered. He doesn't carry on a
conversation--he moves from subject to subject so
rapidly (yet always with logic and lucidity) that he
almost seems to be indulging in free association.
Don Shirley is a quicksilver.
If you were to ask:
resultant scene would resemble a battalion at
attention. One figure would be the concert
pianist who made his debut at sixteen with the
Boston Pops Orchestra playing the Tchaikovsky B-flat
Minor Concerto under the direction of Dean Dixon.
The following year his first major composition was
performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Another figure would be today's Don Shirley who is
practicing that same concerto ("I'm a little rusty
with it now, after all these years.") for a Detroit
Symphony concert in the fall of 1968.
Another Don Shirley is the one who
played as soloist with the orchestra in Milan's La
Scala opera house in a program dedicated to
Gershwin's music. Only two other pianists have
performed there as soloists--Rubinstein and Richter.
He has appeared as soloist with the
Detroit Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the
Cleveland Orchestra, the NBC Symphony and the
National Symphony Orchestra of Washington to name
only a few. Including his appearances
with the trio, he averages some ninety-five concerts
There is another hat he wears--that
of composter. He has written symphonies
performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the new
York Philharmonic, and has composed four organ
symphonies, numerous pieces for piano, two string
quartets and a piano concerto.
It may or may not be germane to this
recording (you look with yourself and judge) but
Shirley, a Phi Beta Kappa, was awarded a Ph.D. in
psychology. Perhaps form his studies, or
perhaps intuitively, he has come to believe that all
music is aural and emotional, not intellectual.
"American is an emotional nation," he says, "not an
intellectual one." For this reason, he scorns
lengthy analytical program notes for his
concerts--he does not want to tell the audience what
they are going to hear, how they should listen and
what to listen for. They should hear the
selections cold--and then warm to them.
"I've never considered myself in
the business," he has remarked. "I am in the
'business' of art and performance. If the
people happen to like what I am doing and come to
hear it-if I happen to communicate--then fine; it's
a business. But I refuse to play the
in-the-business games." In short, he will
do his own sincere thing and and [sic] that's all.
He is his own man at all times.
As he says, "I make a difference
between the artist and the entertainer. The
entertainer is interested in pleasing the people and
in a big pay check. More power to him!
But the artist is a much more complex personality.
He is unable to worry about pleasing the people.
He must be true to himself and the traditional of
his art form. I try to do this. Of
course, we all want to be appreciated, and if we
happen to make money in our work, fine. But
art must come first."
The music contained in this album
(recorded "live" at Carnegie Hall) is quite unique.
It is not in any sense "jazz"--every note for the
piano, cello and bass is written. The pieces
are played exactly the same way every time; nothing
is ad lib. What they are, really, are
exquisite variations on various themes--some
originally folk songs, some popular ballads (ballads
of the populace), some from Broadway musicals--there
is even Yesterday from the Beatles
For instance, the recording of I
Can't Get Started becomes, in Don Shirley's
hands, what might have resulted if the composter,
Vernon Duke, had prevailed upon Rachmaninoff to
write a trio based on the original song. In it
are all the bravura pianistics of a Rachmaninoff
concerto plus the dark, rich cello colors the
Russian virtuoso so adored. All the same, the
end result is Shirley. This is exactly what
he does with his trio in its purest sense!
If this is not your precise cup of tea then you will
never understand what Don Shirley is all about.
In I Fell Pretty
he fashions this Leonard Bernstein
melody form "West Side Story" into a scintillating
presto that begins and ends almost before you know
it. It caught the audience somewhat by surprise, as
the explosive applause indicates.
The Shirley touch in Georgia on My
Mind can be described as instant soul. It
takes on the form of "recitative and aria," and in
Don's mind Georgia is not the name of a state but,
rather, then name of a woman. His setting here
evokes a kind of anxious pleading for the return of
the woman, Georgia.
is taken from a musical show score by Valerian Smith
entitled "Walk in My Shoes." It is not necessarily
the way it will be performed in the show--Don
decided it suggested a lullaby to him and that is
the way he shaped it in his arrangement. He
has very strong feelings about this simple melody.
"Very few professionals can come up with a pure
melody. It is the amateur who--because he has
the good fortune to lack a lot of cluttered-up
formal training--has something in common with the
masses. Therefore, he can create a simple,
lasting melody; hence the melodic line of Lullaby
with its folk-song flavor." it is
interesting to note that Dr. Smith is a dentist, not
a musician in the professional sense. But
never mind how you label the composer--the music
speaks for itself.
perhaps Shirley's most famous performance, is
re-created here for the concert. (Note the
spontaneous applause of recognition after the first
phrase.) The slurring cello sets the tone of
the chain gang's wry work song and then the piano
wails straight from the gut.
The collection is not merely a group
of numbers by a surpassingly fine pianist--it is a
series of beautifully wrought tone poems that add up
to a portrait of the artist. As you listen you
will discover a whole new world of musical