Detractors of Dallas’s RED GARLAND disdained him as a “cocktail pianist” and claimed he made it into Miles Davis’s first classic quintet (from 1955 to 1957) only because of a stylistic similarity to Davis obsession Ahmad Jamal. Yet he proved the perfect accompanist for not just the legendary trumpeter but also, subsequently, Davis’s saxophonist John Coltrane. On a pair of superb collections, Davis’s four-CD THE LEGENDARY PRESTIGE QUINTET SESSIONS and COLTRANE’s SIX-CD FEARLESS LEADER (both Prestige), it’s easy to hear what attracted the two to Garland: his versatility. Driving but never stepping on the rhythm section, he slips easily into blues; on ballads, he makes the keys ring like bells, then flies off at Teddy Wilson light speed. Prestige was infamous for putting musicians in studios for marathon sessions with no retakes and then releasing everything. This led to some raw moments—Coltrane in particular seems close to drowning on a couple of early quintet solos—yet Garland is poised and cool throughout. Unexciting? To some, maybe. But Garland didn’t merely back these geniuses, he made them better.
From the December 2006 Issue Subscribe