Erroll Garner – Russian Lullaby (Jazz Articles @TheNoteShow)


Erroll Garner’s recording of “Russian Lullaby” is a symphony for left hand. It’s everywhere, that hand, bouncing on top of chords, as if the piano keyboard is too hot to touch. The hand hits a chord off the beat, is burned, bounces to the next, burned again. The right hand is off somewhere, shouting across an ocean to its brother. We’ll meet up with it later. It’s that burning left hand we want to spend some time with at the moment.

The left hand part is miles away from the steady plunk plunk plunk of garner’s normal comping, that style meant to mimic the big band riffs of the 20’s.

Pianist’s interjection: That steady plunk plunk plunk of Garner’s is a lot harder to work than you may think. If you haven’t already tried to emulate it, I urge you to do so, if for no other reason than to feel what it’s like to trace an artist’s brush strokes. For non-pianists, you can try it too. Tap you hand on your lap. You can do it right now. Get a steady one-two-three-four going. Got it? Now, with your right hand, play the solo from Concert By the Sea‘s “I’ll Remember April.” See what I mean?

Rather than a chord per beat, with an occasional syncopated thumb across a cluster just to keep things lively, Garner opts for the inverse. The left hand is almost completely in syncopation throughout the entire pie

ce, with an occasional strike on the beat, just to keep things lively. The right hand is in syncopation with this, hitting on the beat a great deal of the time. It’s quite maddening, actually. Even more so as the two hands, so distantly removed from each other, speak to each other in such congruency that it defies logic.

This of course, was Garner gone Latin. Everybody was doing it. But perhaps there was a little more in this tune than what met the ear.

Jazz men of this period sought to get away from the melody as quickly as possible. Bird did it. Lester Young, Miles, Coltrane – all avoided the written melody like a superstition. It was the policy of the time. Garner was no exception, and in fact, was probably the worst (read: best) offender. But in Russian Lullaby, he seems to be at war with this policy. The melody comes and goes. Even at its most distant, it is never too far away.

Garner was a lyrical player, a poet, given to musical flights of fancy, tangents, digressions, dreams. One piece of concert footage has Eddie Calhoun staring in utter bewilderment, hands at the ready to launch into whatever Garner may launch at any moment, only Garner doesn’t launch. Instead, there is a good minute of free-associative ragtime-stride-boogie-woogie, during which Calhoun at one point shrugs his shoulders, possibly considering ducking out the side for a quick smoke. And Erroll begins “Honeysuckle Rose.”


This method was in itself a parody of melody abandonment. It was an ironic way of dealing with the problem of melody in a time when it was gauche – indeed, unhip is what it was – even to consider that a melody might be salvageable. Here was Erroll Garner, five-foot-two, a jester on a high chair, thumbing his nose: I gotcher melody abandonment right here.

We needed Erroll Garner to salvage those melodies from the dustbins of boredom. He transformed them because he could. It was the jester in him.

(Perhaps his clowning was compensatory. Every so often in the above bit of footage, the camera pulls out to reveal Garner in full shot. As with all of our geniuses, the gods were jealous of how much talent they gave Erroll Garner. They compensated for their mistake by making him short, about five-foot-two, just short enough not to be able to play the piano comfortably without the aid of a phone book on which to perch, like a child in some poorly improvised restaurant high chair. Of course, he need only play a few bars of “Poor Butterfly” to have full and complete revenge against those gods.)

The jarring interplay between hands in “Russian Lullaby” is more than an indulgence in the Latin craze of the time. The technique itself is symbolic of the artist’s musical struggle. The jazzmen of Erroll Garner’s time rebelled against stagnation. Erroll Garner rebelled against entropy. In a sense, he was the last of his kind, holding on to the past while the present was rapidly changing. Russian Lullaby may have been a herald. Or a haunting, a warning to turn back.

Or maybe not. It doesn’t really matter. It’s just music.

This article was written by The Note Show contributor Paul L. 

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Author: Note

Elias Note is an English writer and interviewer. He grew up playing jazz and classical music and studying Musical Orchestration. He is a children's author and an app designer creating things that make life a little easier and a little more productive for everyone who uses them. He loves music, movies, books, comics and talking to skilled and talented artists about their work.

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