Shirley’s fearlessness is all there in the music. Over a career that spanned six decades, he honed an unforgettable sound -- one that was agnostic to the conventions of either classical or jazz. He showed immense promise early on, debuting with the Boston Pops as a teenager in 1945.
But Shirley was ahead of his time. When music manager Sol Hurok convinced him American audiences wouldn’t accept a black pianist, he took to nightclubs and dives, mixing up his symphonic repertoire with bluesy spirituals and Tin Pan Alley.
He’d eventually be invited back to the concert stage, performing as a soloist at Carnegie Hall, La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera. Once he was back on the concert stage, his music just became more eclectic and multitudinous. A literary thinker who fluently spoke eight languages, he composed haunting tone poems based on James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and the Ancient Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.
He picked up some heady admirers, too: the composer Igor Stravinsky declared Shirley’s “virtuosity is worthy of Gods.” Jazz singer Sarah Vaughan effused that he had “the most glorious sense of shading, phrasing and balance I've ever heard."
Despite his achievements, Shirley remains somewhat of a cult figure. But his newfound attention via the 2019 Golden Globes win is sure to win new listeners. For any music fans curious about this unique American figure, here are 10 recordings to hear by the late, great Don Shirley.
“My Funny Valentine” (from Tonal Expressions, 1955)
Chet Baker may have rightfully made Rodgers and Hart’s famous 1937 showtune his signature song -- but Shirley gives “My Funny Valentine” his own haunting dimensions. His tick-tocking take on the jazz classic, cut as a gauzy, lo-fi duet with bassist Richard Davis on his 1955 debut Tonal Expressions, goes straight to its heart.
“Band 2” (from Orpheus in the Underworld, 1957)
A collection of solo piano pieces inspired by Greek mythology, Orpheus in the Underworld is one of Shirley’s most immersive and rewarding listens. The luminous “Band 2” is a highlight, representing the scene in which Eurydice is bitten by a poisonous viper. Plus, this lovely-yet-obscure LP gets its own funny scene in Green Book, in which Viggo Mortensen’s Tony Lip mangles the title.
“It Could Happen to You” (from Solos, 1958)
In a 1971 live review from Carnegie Hall, Peter G. Davis wrote that Shirley “may strike some as a trifle odd” -- specifically, that he could flip the American Songbook into nocturnes and études. This is true for his gorgeous, Chopinesque version of the popular standard “It Could Happen To You,” found on his 1958 album Solos. Purists on either side may balk at this irreverent cocktail of Western forms, but this is a mesmerizing version of an oft-covered jazz tune.
“One More For The Road” (from Don Shirley, 1959)
Shirley’s excellent 1959 self-titled album is the place to start for an LP-length helping of the man: on well-known compositions like “I Remember April,” “The Nearness of You” and “Satin Doll,” he doles out most shades of his sound with accessibility and zeal. His version of “One More For the Road” is especially irresistible, showing off a stride-piano style that closely orbits early rock ‘n roll.
“This Nearly Was Mine” (from Don Shirley, 1959)
Another great cut from Don Shirley: a pure, delicate take on the Rodgers and Hart ballad “This Nearly Was Mine.” When sung, it’s an affecting ballad about the one who got away: Shirley plays in slow, evocative spindrifts like a music box, like the endlessly cycling what-ifs in a potential lover’s mind.
“The Man I Love” (from Don Shirley Trio, 1961)
This George and Ira Gershwin standard was rescued from the forgotten 1924 musical Lady, Be Good! to become a hard bop go-to: Art Pepper, Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock all memorably jammed on “The Man I Love.” Don Shirley’s version all but removes the jazz, though -- he turned the puppy-dog standard into a dramatic whirlpool of sound worthy of Rachmaninov.
“Water Boy” (from Water Boy, 1965)
A traditional plantation holler that took on a second life in the 1920s as a jazz standard, “Water Boy” was tackled by Odetta, John Lee Hooker and Jimmie Rodgers -- all who sang it as if they were possessed. That said, Shirley’s interpretation may be the most unflinching of them all: he and bassist Ken Fricker uneasily churn out the melody as cellist Juri Taht strikes his instrument like he’s swinging a blunt object.
“I’ll Drown in My Tears” (from The Gospel According to Don Shirley, 1969)
Shirley’s work is often pretty lofty stuff, exploring the liminal spaces between American roots music and European forms. But he was also capable of simplifying, sometimes digging into a down-home gospel mood when the mood struck. If you prefer Shirley’s sound à la carte, check out his punchy interpretation of the Henry Glover-via-Ray Charles hit “I’ll Drown in My Tears.”
“D, D & D: Divertimento For Duke By Don” (from Home With Don Shirley, 2001)
Shirley’s list of admirers included Duke Ellington, who first hired him to perform at Carnegie Hall in 1955. When he passed away in 1974, Shirley memorialized him with his own divertimento -- a classical term for a happy, lighthearted composition, and perhaps a fitting word to describe the legendarily gracious Sir Duke himself. This 16-minute epic, deftly shapeshifting from style to style, is a fitting tribute to the happy man of jazz.
“Blue Skies” (from Home With Don Shirley, 2001)
Irving Berlin’s cheerful “Blue Skies” made it into Shirley’s wheelhouse -- with a twist. “Relentless blue skies meant monotony with no end in sight [to him],” explained his nephew, Edwin Shirley III. “Perhaps dry land, longing for rain and there’s no sign of clouds anywhere.” This sardonic POV made for a melodically quizzical version of the Berlin tune, ending in a storm of crashing chords. If any recording sums up Shirley’s long, strange career, one in which he tore apart the rulebook in an uncomprehending world, “Blue Skies” is it.