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Back in the days before I was borned, or even close to it, my mother bought records. Sure, my dad did, too, and most of their collection he likely acquired, but I found several albums with her maiden name written across the fronts when I raided their obsolete-to-them record collection several months ago. Ha! I deftly, electronically erased it from this one, however; no stealing my identity!
Donald Shirley was not a name I had heard before, but something about the title, Tonal Expressions, and the cover intrigued me. Unfortunately, when I returned home to my beloved (and my) turntable, I discovered it was in rather terrible condition. The little snippets on which I decided to risk my stylus sounded interesting, however. I took a gander on-line, and found a super cheap used copy of a double-CD, pairing it with his next-and-second album, Piano Perspectives. Woohoo!
My initial visual impression was, indeed, warranted; it's a wonderful album (and Piano Perspectives is no slouch, either). It's mostly a mellow affair, as Shirley primarily plays jazz standards, Tin Pan Alley numbers, and show tunes. He doesn't just play them, however; he plays in and around them. Arrangements go out the window and bits of other tunes often slip in and out and through the pieces. It's a sumptuous yet understated affair, lush but never saccharine.
My favorite piece, and today's jukebox selection,
Secret Love, was a bit young to be a standard yet, as it was written only a couple of short years earlier for the 1953 film Calamity Jane (see below), starring Doris Day, whose TV show, the imaginatively named The Doris Day Show, I loved as a child.
And now, let's give the album's liner notes the floor for a bit, shall we?
Let us begin simply by saying that Don Shirley is a pianist. With all that this term implies, it is used here in its fullness to designate the stature of this musician. The kind of piano he ploys may now be, and most certainly and more acutely will be in the future, open to debate.
We would not be inclined to categorize him as a classical or as a jazz musician although with the public that is likely to happen. We would go further and say that his kind of music does not seem to hinge between the two although this is the designation he is likely to receive by many. We would go one step further and say that of all the things that might be consigned him, he is most nearly to become the artist embodying the suffusion of the classics and the modern.
These are strong statements to make. They would be so if the artist here considered were an established one. It is dangerous to claim them when he is beginning the ascent. We allow his musical history and what you will hear in this and forthcoming albums to be the proof.
In considering his background, you should know that his first teacher was his mother, that he was born in Kingston, Jamaica on January 27, 1927, that at the age of nine he was extended on invitation to study theory with Mittolovski at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music, that he later studied with the famous organist Conrad Bernier, and that he studied advanced composition with both Bernier and Dr. Thaddeus Jones at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D. C.
Shirley mode his concert debut with the BostonPopsSymphony Orchestra in Boston June 25, 1945, with Dean Dixon as guest conductor. In 1949 he received an invitation from the Haitian government to play at the Exposition Internationale du Bi-Centenaire De Port-au-Prince followed by a request from Archbishop Le Goise and President Estime for a repeat performance the following week. Upon Arthur Fiedler's recent trip to Chicago, Shirley was again extended on invitation to appear with the orchestra in June 1954.
With such a background, it is evident that Shirley is a highly respected legitimate musician possessing great technical skill and an innate musical ability. He displays also great tenderness and emotional depth which render his performances inspiring.
Secret Love may not sound like something you'd expect from this blog, but I absolutely adore this album! Sadly, my mother is getting up in years, and, when I asked her about it, hoping to please her by my liking it, she only vaguely remembered Shirley's name.