George Shearing Quintet
Latin Affair






Latin Affair by the George Shearing Quartet, led by the eponymous pianist (1919–2011), is not what one expects right from the get-go, and this is all the more pitiful given that one’s first impression tends to be everlasting. Released in 1959 on Capitol Records as part of Shearing’s (seemingly) Latin-themed releases, it features the talents of said pianist, vibraphonist Warren Chasen, the underused talent of guitarist Toots Thielmanns, bassist Carl Pruitt, drummer Roy Hanes as well as a sixth member and guest musician: conguero Armando Peraza contributes three unique tunes to the album, with Shearing adding another one. The remaining eight tracks are renditions of classic Jazz standards that are taken to new climes.


George Shearing’s Latin Affair has a less than optimal album title. Sure, it serves the purpose of showing the world that this is one of the pianist’s and quintet’s albums that harbor a certain style and kind of transformations, so in this regard, the album title succeeds. But as is the case with two of my most beloved and no less cited albums, one being vibraphonist Cal Tajder’s Latin Kick (1956), the other being guitarist Barney Kessel’s Exotica-inspired (!) Contemporary Latin Rhythms (1963), their perception of Latin differs from what became a gallimaufry of clichés that still pester many an artist who wants to introduce a listener to the real spirit of Latin music, one which is severely harmed by endless renditions of La Cucaracha, Bésame Mucho or Malagueña. Assembling the latest Bop craze and merging it with bold doses of Exotica and, well, Latinized structures, Latin Affair is one work to cherish. I will tell you below why this is indeed the case.


A hazy feeling of carefreeness, all is right in the world, but no blissful elation comes through: this is the prospect of Arthur Altman’s and Jack Lawrence’s All Or Nothing At All, at least once George Sharing and his fellow musicians get their hands on this classic. Originally not Latin at all, the quintet’s transmutation is delicately subtle, focusing on the amalgamation of Shearing’s piano and Chasen’s vibraphone droplets whose co-occurrence is silky and streamlined, held together by guest musician Armando Peraza’s muffled conga beat and a raspy guiro undercurrent. Instead of a Latin blast, the artists favor a mélange veiled in velvet. George and Ira Gershwin’s Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off is cheekily placed as the second title; much livelier and saltatory than the opener, the tempo is increased, as are the overtones in major, with a polyphonic piano interlude at its apex. A large-grained maraca thicket rounds off the mellow performance.


While Torrie Zito’s Afro No. IV is an absolutely stellar and no less refreshing sunset-colored Crime Jazz take with dubious vibraphone interstices and a grafted Bop aorta as well as a prominent – albeit tame – conga stampede, George Shearing’s own Magic evokes the technicolor insouciance of Robert Drasnin’s Voodoo!(1959) due to the soothing yet verdured amount of languorous harmonies that leave room for Carl Pruitt’s double bass to shimmer through the pastel helixes. It’s Easy To Remember by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers then adds the biggest dose of Afro-Bop to the scenery due to its metropolitan sunburst theme, implied mirages that dance over the steamy asphalt and the occasionally rustic and no less cool piano formations. Warmhearted counterparts are injected as well, but the biggest boon comes in the form of the conga backdrop whose huge reverb adds plasticity to the plastic city. Conguero Armando Peraza’s own Estampa Cubana finishes side A in a comparably fast-paced and boldly Latin Merengue. Dun-colored, rufescent and aquiver with lust, Shearing’s piano, for once, spawns the archetypical Latinisms while the conga coppice is much punchier than before. The performance ends with a fairy tale melody on the vibraphone and Roy Hane’s sizzling cymbals.


On side B, the George Shearing Quartet moves into a dreamier direction yet again with Gus Kahn’s and Nacio Herb Brown’s You Stepped Out Of A Dream whose balmy euphony is once again carried by phantasmagoric piano-and-vibe movements which carry the whole arrangement, but allow Shearing to break free from time to time, then accompanied by the well-known and cautiously spiced up conga parade in these instances. The sun-kissed Mambo Balahu proves to be the second offering of Armando Peraza. Awash with a child-like joy amid the argentine piano spirals and much augmented by the echoey congas and maracas, Mambo Balahu showcases the tendency of these aural sunbeams to break the lushness and inject an adjuvant based on callisthenics. Jerome Kern’s and Johnny Mercer’s Dear Beloved would be a feared inclusion on string-heavy orchestral albums due to its potential amount of chintziness, but George Shearing transforms this ballad into an uplifting ayre and surprises with its percussion placenta: before it becomes orderly and streamlined, the conga beat rattles like a snake and does so time and again during the song, adding a verve to a lachrymose hymn that circumvents the original concept, but works exceptionally well without spoiling the moment.


Whereas Cuando Sono El Gaznation by Hernandez Avila is an eclectic and bustling Afro-Bop brute with tumular pianos, tubular vibes and uproarious conga cascades, Armando Peraza’s This Is Africa is unexpectedly cinematic, comprising of rubicund chords, double bass protrusions and that kind of unrest at the midnight hour that is torn by a lovestoned behavior. Hey, this is exactly what Latin music is also about. This tune therefore takes a bow and succumbs to the very conceptions of Latin that survive to this very day. Jule Styne’s Anywhere is the final song, a repetition of the formula that made the opener of side A so wondrous, but improved here by clanging timbales and muffled cowbells as well as a whirling piano intermission before the quintet ventures into that mellow phase yet again whidh also ends the album for good.


An album title such as Latin Affair is a double-edged sword, as previously mentioned in the opening paragraph, for the term Latin still evokes the conception of mildly raucous piano spirals of that certain kind, cavalcades of cha-cha-chants and blazing horns that fire on all cylinders. Fair enough. But wait, it gets worse in this regard: couple the term Latin with Affair, and you cannot blame the listener of thinking about oily devotion, Tartarean Tangos and a longing for that moon-lit maiden. Turns out that the third Latin album of the George Shearing Quintet does not evoke any of these feelings. With the exception of Armando Peraza’s This Is Africa and Estampa Cubana, the latter of which sports a strangely nocturnal ambiguity that does indeed live up to the album title and its polysemy, the rest of the table of contents is superbly hazy and mild-mannered, not unlike the primary driving factor of vintage Exotica and its paradisiac pith.


Make no mistake, Latin Affair is an Exotica album, one most listeners of the genre would proudly mention and play if it contained a little birdcall here and a Japanese stringed instrument there. Since this is not the case, the album is favored in other circles, be it in Afro-Cuban clubs or Bop fraternities. Unique compositions such as Magic and renditions à la Dearly Beloved or Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off enchant with their aqueous piano streams and the glistening vibe. It might be somewhat sad that vibraphonist Warren Chasen is presumably never allowed to break out and leave the omnipresence of George Shearing’s piano behind during a short solo segue or two, but still, the constant coupling does not get stale over the course of this album at all. Latin Affair is, at the end of the day, cleverly named. At the same time, its title does not evoke its principal lure for Exotica fans. These conflictive thoughts notwithstanding, it is available to purchase on vinyl, as CD reissue and a digital download version.


Exotica Review 317: George Shearing Quintet – Latin Affair (1959). Originally published on Feb. 22, 2014 at