(The ingredients for a great performance are) a good audience, a good piano, and a good physical feeling, which is not available to every soul, every day of everyone’s life.
Your intent, then, is to speak to your audience in a language you know, to try to communicate in a way that will bring to them as good a feeling as you have yourself,” – George Shearing
George Shearing (1919 – 2011) pianist, composer, emigrated to the U.S. from England in 1947. At that time, his musicianship was fully developed, and he was quite accomplished. When people speak of the “Shearing Sound” they are referring to the sound of his quintet. The quintet lived from the late 1940’s for about a decade. It was a huge success. If you are unsure as to what that is, when you here it, you will recognize it. It was and continues to be copied seemingly ad infinitum. Unfortunately, “muzak” was provided with a lot of fodder for bad copycat sound.
This style of piano playing uses block chords, which he has attributed to pianist Milt Buckner. These block chords are 5-note chords where the melody is played in octaves, and the chord is formed with the 3 inner voices. The left hand plays the thumb on the lower octave of the melody, (when on the white notes).
The right hand thumb is directly next to the left hand, usually a half or whole step up. This “Shearing Voicing” has been called “locked hands”. The inner voices can be diatonic or every other chord diminished, as you traverse the scale. Since they are 5 note chords, they are usually the triad with major or minor 7th, or 2nd or 6th added.
A number of internet tutorials are incorrect, as far as the “pure” Shearing block chord. The following is not one of those. Dick Hyman has a number of tutorials on the internet. To see his tutorial on block chords, click here. When done, hit your browser’s Back button.
The “Shearing Sound” was the above described piano, along with vibraphone playing the melody in octaves, and the guitar playing usually the upper octave melody. The bass part was written out because the harmony was precise and complex, and the drums usually played brushes.
Here is the quintet playing “I’ll Be Around”
Shearing was known for his unusual, and very impressionist treatments of songs when playing solo piano. Here is an early example where he play’s Gershwin’s Summertime.
Here is a later example. This song, “I Cover the Waterfront” was done by Billie Holiday, and just about everyone else, usually in a jazz style. This video is unabashedly impressionistic. Influences of Debussy, Satie, and Ravel can be heard. He even quotes a bit from a Debussy piece at about 3:38. In other works, he has quoted Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, and others. When he does, the quote fits in as if it were written that way.
He was a huge influence on jazz and jazz piano players.
I consider him one of the greatest musical minds I’ve ever been around. In the ’50s, George paved the way for me and the (Modern Jazz Quartet), and even today jazz players, especially pianists, are indebted to him. – Dave Brubeck
John Pizzarelli, who recorded 2002’s “The Rare Delight of You” with the George Shearing Quintet, said,
The Shearing sound is something that lives on ad infinitum. There’s definitely a George Shearing style on the piano that really is hard to copy but we do it all the time,” he said. “It’s still something that’s employed by groups when they’re arranging things. They’ll say, ‘Well wait a minute. We’ll do something like Shearing in the middle.”
In 2007, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth !!. George Shearing died on February 14, 2011, Here are two very informative obituaries: