The concert began with an unaccompanied piano solo by George Shearing. The tune was Cole Porter’s “Dream Dancing.” It began with a reverent, hymn-like approach and moved on to a second chorus that bounced with lilting delicacy. In just a few breathtaking moments the octogenarian displayed the elegance, technique and picturesque imagination that has not only been his trademark for more than half a century, but an enduring and inspiring influence on a whole new generation of jazz musicians.
The occasion was an all-star salute for Shearing’s 80th birthday, heightened by the guest appearances of Dave Brubeck and Billy Taylor. Brubeck, who is skedded for a rare club date for the 50th anni Birdland bash on Dec. 15, joined Shearing for a duet of his own waltzing signature tune, “In Your Own Sweet Way.” Shearing also paired with Taylor for “One for the Woofer,” a bop-flavored Taylor tune in which Shearing added the neat touch of a Bach Partita
The John Pizzarelli Trio scored handsomely with “Azure Te” and “I Got Rhythm,” but it was the old Benny Goodman classic “If Dreams Come True” that best epitomized the small group clarity Shearing had made so notably recognizable and popular more than a half century ago. Shearing had recorded the tune with Peggy Lee, and the Pizzarelli trio revived its subtle dancing humor, with Ray Kennedy’s bright swinging piano interlude, and John injecting a witty musical quote from the original 1959 session.
In a tribute to the late masterful French jazz violinist, Stephane Grappelli, with whom Shearing had often played and recorded, Regina Carter gave a nod to the collaboration with Frankie Laine’s haunting torcher, “We’ll Be Together Again” and a gutsy Gershwin “Lady Be Good.” The legacy of the jazz fiddle remains in safe hands.
Second half recalled the warm sound of the famed quintet, with Shearing’s bold block chords floating along with the matched vibraphone and guitar support. The set included Richard Rodgers’ “I’d Like to Recognize the Tune,” Fritz Kreisler’s “Stars in Your Eyes” and bop classics “Subconscious Lee” by Lee Konitz and “Donna Lee.” The latter prompted Shearing to quip, “It’s based on the chord changes to ‘Indiana,’ but if you recognize the tune, we’re doing something wrong.”
A stately and elegant Nancy Wilson joined Shearing and the quintet in a reprise of their classic l960 recorded collaboration, “The Swingin’s Mutual.” Lightly swinging through the Sammy Cahn-Jule Styne nostalgic postcard “The Things We Did Last Summer” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You,” they peaked with “On Green Dolphin Street.” Shearing’s light skipping beat provided Wilson with warm enveloping support, and the singer was obviously comfortably inspired and simply flew with it.
Making a far too modest but witty observation of his some 300 compositions — “299 of which are relatively obscure” — Shearing closed with his classic jazz anthem “Lullaby of Birdland,” and the house rose and roared, long and loud, before joining in the traditional song salute, “Happy Birthday to You.”