Saturday, January 19, 2008

In Appreciation of Oscar Peterson

In Appreciation of Oscar Peterson

by Joe Schwab

I can't remember not listening to Oscar Peterson. From the crib to today I've never gone more than a week without hearing his music. Growing up, my Mom had over 100 records, 98% of them were by Oscar, the other 2% featured him. O.P. died in his native Canada on Christmas Eve; he was 82 and in poor health. He had suffered a stroke in 1993 which essentially knocked out his left hand; he suffered from arthritis for years as well. Even an 80% Oscar Peterson was better than any other pianist dead or alive, period.


His hero Art Tatum was dazzling and amazingly dexterous, but listen to Tatum's "I Cover the Waterfront" from 1935 and his performance of the same song in 1955 and they're nearly note for note the same arrangement. With all due respect to "The Master" Tatum, his explorations of harmonic inventions and new ways to reinvent classic songs paled in comparison to Peterson who by the 60's always found new and innovative ways to breathe new life into old chestnuts.

So the world is blessed to have had 60 years of Oscar Peterson recordings to sink its collective teeth into. Much of this was due to his mentor, producer, and manager Norman Granz. Nobody was a greater friend to the Jazz musician than Granz who brought Jazz out of the speakeasies and dumpy clubs and into the concert halls to enrich the music and its musicians with the respect it deserved. He made a lot of money for a lot of musicians for nearly 50 years.


That said, Granz' recording methods were not always putting the musician in the best possible recording situation. He would often record marathon session, usually after a grueling concert tour or a long Jazz at The Philharmonic program. Now the typical Jazz musician is not one to rise and shine early in the morning and come out with guns blazing, far from it. A 20 hour weekend session could result in 15-20 new albums to be released over a one year period by Verve or later on Granz' Pablo label.

A particular setting might have been a better recipe for inspiration than others, be it a live venue or a studio. So here I submit my five essential recordings from his catalogue that encompasses over 300 records to his credit. I've done my homework, over 48 years of it. I've heard 'em all and I can tell you, Oscar Peterson never put out a bad record, it's just that some are more inspired than others. Below is what I'll be packing for the desert island.


5- Great Connections

After the departure of Ray Brown from the Trio, a series of replacement bassists were used for nearly 10 years. It wasn't until he was joined by Danish legend Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson that he was able to find the kindred musical compatriot that he lost when Ray came off the road in 1966. Here we find Oscar at his peak. Chops were never at question, nobody ever played faster, but this record goes far deeper into the harmonics and exploration into different types of chording and progressions. For an example, listen to the version of Charlie Chaplin's "Smile", done with all the tenderness of a Bill Evans ballad. Or try the beauty and dexterity that he displays in "Younger Than Springtime" or Ferde Grofe's lightly classical "On The Trail". Add in the dimension of NHOP's beautiful melodic playing as well as his gently swinging time keeping. His playing displayed the swing of Ray Brown mixed with the great invention of Scott LaFaro. It's no wonder NHOP was associated with Oscar until his untimely death in 2005. I would also be remiss not to mention the lovely drumming and brush work from drummer Louis Hayes, a trio holdover after replacing longtime drummer Ed Thigpen in 1967.

4- The London House Sessions


The London House was a tiny but classy club in Chicago's Loop that hosted the finest Jazz of its time. Every spring the Oscar Peterson Trio took up residence for three shows a night over a two week period. In 1962 Verve records brought mobile equipment to record the Trio in what was their home away from home. The London House was so small and intimate that you could actually touch the piano keys from the front table. Good ears can detect the sound of forks and knifes cutting through the filets and chops the club was known for.


These recordings resulted in four fine Verve records - The Sound of The Trio, The Trio, Something Warm and Put On a Happy Face. Here the Trio is relaxed in a familiar setting, a real comfort zone. The great 90's Verve team of Michael Lang, Ben Young, Richard Seidel among others, sifted through tapes to put together a complete set of this engagement and one that rivals the sets put together by Mosaic, Bear Family, Hip-o-Select and Rhino, only you don't have to give up your first born to purchase a copy once it's sold out.

3- Exclusively For My Friends


In the 60's and primarily after the departure of Ray Brown, Oscar began recording at the German villa of Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer. This was Oscar's first introduction to "the Cadillac" of grand pianos, the Bosendorfer which became his "axe" of choice until his last days. The exceptional sound, the fine piano and a select group of friends created a perfect combination for these intimate recordings. Not to mention, this is O.P. at his peak, before arthritis became an issue.


No longer was he recording solely as part of a unit. This setting found him recording solo for the first time as well as a more freewheeling, anything goes trio situation. Some of these sessions were done live before an invited audience and some were not, but both situations were relaxed and no doubt an inspiration to his already creative mind and fingers. This four CD set captures sessions done between 1963 and 1968, though individual CD's and LP's have been released over the years by MPS, Prestige and Verve.

2- At The Stratford Shakespearean Festival


Recorded in 1956 in Ontario, by which time the Trio of O.P., Ray Brown and Herb Ellis had become a well oiled machine. No doubt the number one thing in the lives of these three gentlemen was music and it shows. By this time the Trio had been touring constantly with the Jazz at The Philharmonic troop and rehearsing insistently. I once watched Ray Brown rehearsing his young Trio for over three hours, going over one passage of an arrangement for over one hour. Obviously this was a function of what he had learned from his days with Peterson. The arrangements are tight and they swing so hard it hurts.


What a wonderful surprise it was when the folks at Verve released the CD and included the fabulous mini suite "Daisy's Dream". This beautiful piece of music clocks in at over 13 minutes and obviously could not fit on the original album. It not only typified the diverse talents of each member but proved once again the hard work and hours spent rehearsing by three kindred spirits.

1- Canadiana Suite


The masterpiece. Though known for his flying fingers, here Oscar writes all the compositions, each one representing different areas of his beloved Canada. Blues waltzes and tender ballads are all represented in a stunning form as diverse as the large open lands of the country it depicts. Subtly performed by the classic trio with Brown and Ed Thigpen, this is the record that shows off Oscar's chops, his gift for composition and great harmonic intuition. Hogtown Blues, Wheatland and Place St. Henri became staples of his live shows for years, but all the songs on this record are classics and it will no doubt be the one recording that will be Oscar Peterson's legacy.

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