Writings about Music

Piano Improvisation Series

The Person I Would Most Like To Meet Now

Red Garland (New York 1960) Photo by William Claxton

That would be Red Garland. Back in 2013, I wrote about Garland because I found myself preferring his piano playing over that of Bill Evans who has traditionally been my favorite, including speculating about how my views might evolve over time.

Now, unexpectedly becoming a pianist myself, Red Garland has risen even more so, and I absolutely for myself find him the greatest jazz pianist ever for his touch, tone, rasa, horizontal invention, vertical invention, structural form, time, rhythm, articulation, dynamics, phrasing, and use of space.

There was an early precursor of all this when upon my eighteenth birthday my parents showered me with around ten immortal jazz albums, including Tenor Madness, the famous "showdown" between John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins with Coltrane ultimately prevailing over a brilliant performance from Rollins. Amidst all the saxophone excitement, I was awestruck by the godlike elegance and sophistication of Red Garland's piano playing, which really didn't seem to be of this earth.

It is doubtful I can match the descriptions of Garland from my original essay, and I hope you will take the time to read it, too. This and another writing about Stan Getz yielded an invitation to lecture at California State University. Here is an excerpt:

Both serenity and intellectual wonderment are spawned by the pianistic constructions of Red Garland, a musician who achieved one of the most elusive pursuits of all - making the most ubiquitous instrument in Western music history, the piano, his own.

Red’s sound centers around chiseled chords, fresh and bold as alpine forests, together with melodic invention and embroidery conjuring an ancient Sanskrit master jeweler spinning beveled and faceted emeralds, rubies, sapphires, ivory and gold into cascading waterfall explorations of the Himalayan mountain pools bordering rasa and mind.

And regarding my stated desire to meet Red, which is conceptual, of course, because he is long gone, one must approach meeting one's musical idols most carefully because chemistry that clicks in a purely musical sense without any personal interaction may not fare as well when actually meeting someone like that in the flesh. And if you are disappointed or even offended by that person it might even interfere with your future enjoyment and education from their music.

Together with Red Garland, the jazz artist I've been listening to the most is Frank Sinatra, who simultaneously transcended genres, and couldn't help imagining how monumental it would have been for them to have recorded some duet albums together in the fifties - wow. That's one to remember if we ever do invent a time machine!

It is evident from the music that Garland also had great admiration for Frank Sinatra, including significant time spent with Lester Young and Miles Davis who both stated their preference for Sinatra's interpretations of jazz standards over all other singers as did Lee Konitz, Lou Levy, and myriad other jazz greats.

As an aside, I noticed how Sinatra and Garland shared a penchant for ultracool hats indicative of their aesthetic style. One imagines Garland had reddish hair like Lester Young and myself, but I've never seen a color photograph revealing such.

More specifically in this essay, I am referring to the Red Garland Trio with Paul Chambers on bass and Art Taylor on drums, for myself being the greatest piano trio ever bar none. What an enormous pleasure to savor Chambers' legendary bass lines and tones pulsating so transparently, due to the lack of horns, underneath Red's constructions with Taylor adding the most exquisite skin and metal timbres imaginable giving voice to his immaculately pure and selfless rhythmic invention.

So far, there is only one solo piano by Red Garland I've found, and it, too, is worthy of the Forest of Brinda, again for myself unmatched by anyone else.

My friend, David Amram, knew Red Garland, and I will give him a call to ask some questions, but the truth for myself likely exists in the recordings Red has gifted us, including additional sessions with Coltrane and Donald Byrd alongside earlier albums with the Miles Davis Quintet.

One interesting detail is how like the phenomenal Indian bansri artist, Hariprasad Chaurasia, who was first a wrestler, Garland was a boxer prior to shifting his focus to music. From the photo above, Red's arms do appear exceptionally powerful, providing the propulsion behind his grace.

Sometimes I'm sad that my friends Earl Wild and Don Shirley are no longer here to discuss piano playing with. Equally unavailable is Red Garland, so I can only imagine the million things I'd love to ask him about improvisation and piano playing. Now, the best I may do is intuit from his music what those answers might have been.

One wonders how Garland felt about the ascendancy of Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner in the late fifties and early sixties, respectively, and what if any effect this had on his persona, psyche and career. It would be tragic if he felt or was actually marginalized by their new piano styles, perhaps even being distracted from how utterly timeless and invulnerable his own original style was, and how it would ultimately prove to be, with the passing of time, in my opinion, the absolute pinnacle of jazz piano.

Funny how the piano and the human voice have become my favorite jazz instruments to listen to, replacing the saxophone, and how my own vocal register seems to be identical to that of Frank Sinatra, but there are no plans for a vocal album so far.

Lennie Tristano remains a great favorite of mine, including assimilating the key procedure of using the left hand like an acoustic bass from his recordings, something my first jazz teacher, Rollan Masciarelli, was also fond of doing come to think of it.

But there are only so many hours in a day, and sometimes it's better to focus-in on one thing rather than spreading out wider, so for now I'm one with Red Garland for improvisational nurturing and the sheer pleasure of savoring musical quality beyond the sea.

Who knows, I may get lucky and meet Red Garland in a dream. This has occurred with Frank Sinatra and Pablo Picasso, and also someone I actually spent some time with in real life, Ravi Shankar.

- Michael Robinson, March 2022, Los Angeles


© 2022 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, jazz pianist and musicologist. His 169 albums include 149 albums for meruvina and 20 albums of piano improvisations. He has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University.