December 27, 2007. Posted by Joshua Jackson.
Oscar Peterson 1925-2007
Sometimes you're just not ready for a particular artist or a piece of music.
That was my first experience with Oscar Peterson. I wasn't ready for it. The sound was simply overwhelming. Too many notes. Pianistic pyrotechnics, at least to my inexperienced ears. My comfort zone at that time was the lilting sway of Red Garland, the impeccable touch of Wynton Kelly, the lonely lyricism of Bill Evans. Basically, any piano player that Miles Davis endorsed.
And Miles was less than kind when it came to descriptions of Oscar Peterson. "Nearly everything he plays," said Davis, "he plays with the same degree of force. He leaves no holes for the rhythm section."
So I ignored Oscar Peterson for too long. But neglecting Oscar wasn't easy, and it didn't last. He was a prolific performer, and he began to creep into my peripheral vision more and more. He was everywhere. Ella and Louis - check. Diz and Getz - check. Prez and Lady Day - yup.
I kept getting closer to the source. In 2000, I worked on Jazz From Lincoln Center with Ed Bradley. We recorded a "Duet on the Hudson" from the Kaplan Penthouse in New York. Ray Brown and Monty Alexander. I interviewed them both for the eventual radio show. Ray Brown talked about the great duet record with Jimmy Blanton and Duke Ellington. Then the conversation turned into an Oscar ceremony - his admiration for bassist Oscar Pettiford, and his longtime association with pianist Oscar Peterson. Monty Alexander started in about Nat Cole, and eventually landed on Oscar Peterson.
I remember a moment during Martin Scorsese's THE BLUES series a few years later. During the episode that Clint Easwood directed, "Piano Blues," Ray Charles gave a ringing endorsement to Oscar Peterson's skill, one that I'll allow you to discover for yourself. Let's just say it contained a fairly colorful phrase that the FCC would not consider "family-friendly."
Anyway, I owe thanks to Brother Ray for redirecting me to the Oscar Peterson Trio. I dug into those classic recordings of Peterson, Ray Brown, and drummer Ed Thigpen. Boy, do they swing (I know that word is highly charged, so I don't use it lightly). I still haven't heard all of those trio records. But the trio recording NIGHT TRAIN, THE SOUND OF THE TRIO, LIVE FROM CHICAGO, WE GET REQUESTS, VERY TALL, TRIO +1, and the bushel of songbook records are a still a joy to visit.
One session that comes to mind is the date that the trio recorded with the master arranger Nelson Riddle. They sounded so restrained, or better, so composed. All that finger-breaking technique at Oscar Peterson's disposal, yet he plays some of the most unadorned piano I ever heard him play. The B side of the record ends with Benny Goodman's classic signoff - Gordon Jenkins' "Goodbye." Great stuff.
Oscar Peterson signed off recently. He played music for a living. He played himself, for us. I'm glad I discovered that.
Goodbye, Oscar Peterson.
© 2007 WBGO