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Don Shirley Trio in Concert
Atlantic SD1605 [1968]

Side 1
1. I Can't Get Started
2. I Feel Pretty (from "West Side Story")
3. My Funny Valentine
4. Yesterday
5. I Cover the Waterfront
Side 2
6. Georgia on my Mind
7. Lullaby
8. Water Boy
9. One Man's Hand
10. By Myself
11. Happy Talk (from "South Pacific")

Don Shirley, Pianist
Gilberto Munguia, Cellist
Henry Gonzalez, Bassist
Engineering:  Edward T Graham, Stan Weiss

from the back album cover:


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: "Will-the-real-Don-Shirley-please-stand-up?" the 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 a year.

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 repertoire.

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.

Lullaby 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.

Water Boy, 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 excitement.

--Gil McKean