Pianist Red Garland first came to fame in 1955, when he joined trumpeter Miles Davis‘s quintet alongside saxophonist John Coltrane, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones. These five men recorded some of the most revered jazz albums of the 1950s as Davis transitioned from a contract with Prestige Records to one with Columbia, beginning with 1955’s Miles: The New Miles Davis Quintet, and followed by the four-album series Workin’, Steamin’, Cookin’ and Relaxin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet. After signing with Columbia, the band made ‘Round About Midnight, and Milestones (with the addition of Cannonball Adderley on alto sax). More or less concurrently, Garland was running his own bands: first, a trio featuring Chambers and drummer Art Taylor (joined by Coltrane for the album Traneing In), and later a quintet featuring Coltrane, trumpeter Donald Byrd, bassist George Joyner, and Taylor. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, his unique style, based on block chords, a terrific feel for the blues, and some truly beautiful ballad playing, made him one of the top names in jazz piano. But after making literally dozens of albums between 1955 and 1962, he took the Sixties off, sensing that rock was displacing jazz in the popular consciousness and being unwilling to change his music in response.

When Garland returned to professional playing in 1971, the first two albums he recorded were for the German label MPS. The Quota, released in 1973, features Jimmy Heath on saxophone, Peck Morrison on bass, and Lenny McBrowne on drums. (Get it on iTunes.) It opens with the title track, a swinging blues on which Heath’s lines have real bite, and Garland’s playing is as forceful as it is refined. Following a thoughtful reading of the ballad “Days of Wine and Roses,” the album’s third track, “For Carl,” is a surprise; it’s a modal-ish piece in the vein of John Coltrane‘s “My Favorite Things” (the 1960 studio recording, not the wild deconstructions of his later live performances), with Heath on soprano and the trio vamping behind him. When Garland solos, it’s much more stripped-down than his usual rippling lines, approaching stride or barrelhouse piano at times. Indeed, throughout this album, there’s a strong feeling of the saloon to Garland’s approach. The disc’s second half kicks off with “The Squirrel,” a hard bop sprint that recalls Dexter Gordon‘s 1960s Blue Note work. Garland’s piano clanks and clangs, and the whole thing catapults along like a speeding car on a rough road, halfway to exploding but somehow arriving safely at its destination. That’s followed by “On a Clear Day,” which finds Garland back in his 1950s mode; for some listeners, the way he leaps through the melody will recall his performance on “Billy Boy,” from Miles Davis‘s Milestones. Heath, too, seems to be working in a strictly ’50s mode; his solo, coming in the piece’s second half, is strongly reminiscent of Coltrane’s “Countdown.” The album ends with a nearly 10-minute version of “Love for Sale” that kicks off with a nearly three-minute solo exploration that’s surprisingly expansive, for Garland. When the band kicks in behind him, with Heath on soprano again and the rhythm section charging ahead at double time, things become a little more conventional, though the energy level is extremely high. In some ways, the album is structured like a good live set: It comes out of the gate hard, downshifts, gets a little adventurous, jumps back into a higher gear, goes with the old and familiar for a little while, lets the leader seize the spotlight, and takes it all out with some more of the old magic. The Quota, from its title on down, was about as unhip as it was possible for a jazz album to be in 1973 (no synths, no guitars, no exotic percussion, no side-long jams), but it’s a pleasure to listen to for exactly that reason.

His next album, Auf Wiedersehen, also recorded in 1971 but not released until 1975, is a trio date with Sam Jones on bass and Roy Brooks on drums. (Get it on iTunes.) With no saxophonist around to take half the weight, Garland grants his rhythm team a shocking amount of space. The opening cut, “Hobo Joe,” is a simple blues melody that repeatedly gives way to short bass and drum solos. On the title track, Jones gets an even more protracted turn in the spotlight, his early ’70s “bass direct” tone giving his solo a sproingy, rubber-band quality. Similarly, the third track, a version of “A Night in Tunisia,” is a showcase for Brooks, and while it doesn’t attain the apocalyptic heights of Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers‘ version (what ever could?), it’s pretty damn hardcore for a piano trio performance. The album’s second side begins with “Old Stinky Butt,” a nearly 10-minute blues with some mesmerizing right hand work from Garland and another bass solo. That’s followed by a version of “Stella by Starlight” on which the pianist plays the intro, then disappears almost entirely for the next two minutes. When he comes back, he’s in an eruptive mood, running the keyboard with percussive, yet romantic phrases. Then, in the piece’s final minute, he’s on his own for a lovely, ornamental coda. The album ends with a quick (though not short—it runs over six minutes) version of Clifford Brown‘s “Daahoud” that, again, gives both Jones and Brooks room to make individual statements. As with The Quota, Auf Wiedersehen is an album that makes no attempt to engage with the larger musical culture of the early 1970s. It presumes that you’re interested in hearing Red Garland do what Red Garland has always done—and if you are, you’ll be happy with what you get.

Two of the standards performed on The Quota, “Love for Sale” and “On a Clear Day,” also show up on the recently released two-CD Swingin’ On the Korner: Live at Keystone Korner. (Get it from Amazon.) This set, also available as a triple LP because vinyl is fashionable, culls recordings from a week-long stand Garland made with bassist Leroy Vinnegar—and his compatriot from the Miles Davis Quintet days, drummer Philly Joe Jones. The re-teaming of Garland and Jones is fantastic to hear, particularly on the uptempo pieces, where the drummer’s rock-solid swing is most prominent. His solo on “I Wish I Knew,” the second track from the first disc, is a marvel of controlled demolition, slowly escalating from subtle interactions with the pianist to a thunderous, kit-punishing explosion.

There are no Garland compositions heard on Swingin’ On the Korner; the repertoire is all standards, and a few less-standard choices (the liner notes talk about the struggle to identify “If I’m Lucky,” a particularly obscure tune from a forgotten 1940s film). The pianist and the drummer play several tunes that date back to their time with Davis, including “Billy Boy,” “Dear Old Stockholm,” “On Green Dolphin Street,” and “Straight No Chaser.” But again, as with The Quota and Auf Wiedersehen, the presumption is that this music is of interest to the people who’ve sought it out. If you went to the Keystone Korner to hear Red Garland play piano, you knew what you were going to get: those famous block chords, the trilling melodic ornamentations, and the impeccable sense of time, stretching and contracting songs until they became unique, spontaneous inventions, without ever dipping into any post-1959 innovations in technique or approach.

Phil Freeman

Stream two tracks from Swingin’ On the Korner:

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