If you want to see what the joy of jazz looks like, watch George Shearing's face as he plays. Grand gestures aren't his style, so there's no grinning or grimacing. Yet his features are alive and changing every instant -- mirroring all the fresh, good feelings that flow through his music. It's a memorable sight.
Logically, the best place to catch Shearing is in an intimate setting, and no jazz spot could be more intimate than the Cafe Carlyle, where the pianist has set up shop once again through March 21 (one of his performances there was recently televised on PBS). His sole sideman is bassist Brian Torff, who has served as Shearing's "right hand" since the George Shearing Quintet disbanded -- allowing the star to embark on a new phase of musical exploration that's quite personal, yet accessible to even the casual listener.
Shearing and Torff were in splendid form during a recent early show I caught. Their energy was apparent from the first note, even though Shearing chose to open with three ballads in a row, bringing his characteristic crispness of sound to the most misty and shimmering passages. Then too, Shearing's definition of a "ballad" is loose. He'll announce a piece that way, mosey slowly through a few lines, and then start swinging in a very upbeat way, perhaps tossing in some Latin or Spanish flourishes for good measure.
Mr. Torff was only along for the first half of the ride, finishing his portion with "High and Inside," an incredibly lively tune of his own composition. Then he left the stage while Shearing indulged his latest experiment -- singing. This is a relatively new departure for the versatile jazzman, whose vocalizing makes up in style and sincerity what it lacks in range and power.
Whatever the failings of his vocal chords, Shearing has already mastered a variety of moods. At the Carlyle he began mellow, with a ballad, and finished wry, with a Noel Coward patter song. In between came some unexpected hilarity, with a sharp parody of Cole Porter (perhaps good- naturedly aimed at Bobby Short , another frequent Carlyle denizen.)
A soft rendition of "Send in the Clowns" offered further surprises -- no vocal, but a strong touch of Bach in the second half -- and then a real treat happened, as pianist Marian McPartland took the stand and joined Shearing for a duet. Though I missed part of this number, it was clearly the jumpingest segment of the show (she later joined pianist Barbara Carroll in another room at the Carlyle, with similar results), and you couldn't blame Shearing for calling an early break as soon as it was over, to let the mood linger while he regrouped and got ready for the second show.
When I talked with George Shearing recently, he spoke of his "ever-increasing search for something different." The search is in full swing right now, yet Shearing never forgets the need for discipline and craft: Wherever his excursions lead, their outlines remain clear, purposeful, and carefully proportioned. Oh yes -- and joyful, even at their quietest and most introspective moments. No wonder the Shearing touch sounds as fresh, spontaneous, and unpretentions today as ever it did.