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Oscar Peterson’s “Hymn to Freedom” is re-recorded and released as a single

Hymn to Freedom - Single Cover.
Oscar Peterson

On December 16, 1962, Oscar Peterson was in a studio in Los Angeles recording the Night Train album for Verve, along with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen. The trio needed one more song to finish the album and producer Norman Granz suggested they play a blues tune. “Oscar decided that in order to fulfill Norman's wish for something really going back to the roots of the blues, he should write something,” Kelly Peterson, Oscar’s widow, explained recently to WBGO’s Gary Walker. “He told Ray and Ed, ‘I'll take the first chorus and then I'll let you know when to come in and join me,’ which is what he did. The tape was rolling. Oscar played the first chorus and then he nodded, and Ray and Ed joined him.” Peterson called the composition “Hymn to Freedom” in honor of the work that Martin Luther King, Jr. was doing in the Civil Rights Movement. A year later Harriette Hamilton wrote lyrics for the song and it became an unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

Listen to “Hymn to Freedom” played by the Oscar Peterson Trio from the album Night Train in 1962:

Oscar Peterson Trio: Hymn To Freedom

On Friday, December 16, 2022, exactly 60 years after the song was composed and recorded, a new version of “Hymn to Freedom” was released as a single on all digital and streaming platforms by Mack Avenue. Also recorded in Los Angeles, the new rendition features Benny Green on piano, John Clayton on bass and Jeff Hamilton on drums, all three of whom had close ties to Peterson. “I have wanted to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Oscar composing ‘Hymn to Freedom,’ and have been thinking about it since early this year,” Kelly Peterson said. “When I told Celine [her and Oscar’s daughter] I wanted to do that, she suggested that I make a new trio recording of the piece, and that we film it. So that’s what we did.”

Benny Green and Jeff Hamilton
Joe LaRusso
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Benny Green and Jeff Hamilton

Peterson, who produced the latest recording, said that the song has been played year after year all over the world. “It was performed by the Boys and Girls Choir of San Francisco on the steps of the Capital during President Obama's first inauguration in 2009,” she said. “Earlier this year it was arranged by the conductor of the French National Orchestra and performed in their concert in support of Ukraine after the Russian invasion. I had no idea they were doing that. It moved me tremendously to think that that conductor knew the song and wanted to arrange it and have it performed by his orchestra with a choir for that concert.”

Green first heard the song on a copy of Night Train that he bought from Leopold Records in Berkeley, Calif. when he was just 13 years old. “I loved this song from moment one, and my father, who listened to the album with me, observed that one of the cadences in ‘Hymn To Freedom’ is reminiscent of the song ‘Miss Otis Regrets,” he explained. “While there are technical challenges for me in executing some of Oscar’s fast passages, this song is more of a challenge for me to interpret in terms of the “church” element—playing it honestly without having cultural background in the Black Church, while playing Oscar’s music is an authentic musical endeavor for me, as one of millions of people with whom his music connects wholeheartedly and resonates deeply within me. Playing Oscar’s music always gives me a sense of coming home; of returning to the altar of prayer for one who’s given his life’s blood to bring everlasting joy and uplift to the world, that extends eternally beyond his mortal life.”

Hamilton was also very young when he first heard Peterson’s famous composition. “The local record store in my hometown recommended what they thought I would like,” the drummer said. “It was one of the first recordings I bought with my lawn-mowing money. I heard it in their listening booth and immediately bought the LP. I had heard of this trio before and felt it was exactly the music I wanted to be playing. I played along with it and learned all of the arrangements.”

Hamilton said that it’s the pianist’s attention to beautiful melodies that resonate with musicians and with audiences, adding, “Of course, other elements such as his chord progressions and rhythmic involvement are important in getting his messages across to the listener.” For his part, Green pointed to Peterson’s immersion in the traditions of the past as key factor to the success of his songwriting: “Oscar’s writing, like his playing, embraces the truth of his musical heritage rather than attempting to circumvent it. Oscar’s music is a profoundly loving homage to all that’s inspired him—from J.S. Bach through to Hank Jones and John Lewis, with no stops whatsoever in-between. Oscar’s music is reverent and celebratory of his musical inspirations and heroes, he makes no effort to hide this, and me and his fans the world over love him for it.”

Making the current recording even more special, Clayton played the session using Ray Brown’s bass, but chose not to mimic his hero’s work. “I analyzed what Ray did on the original recording,” Clayton said. “Like Benny and Jeff, I chose not to do a note-by-note transcription of the original, but instead to follow Ray’s lead and allow that to influence my choices. That’s the beauty of jazz—go ‘from emulation to your own creation.’”

John Clayton
Joe LaRusso
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John Clayton at recording session for Hymn to Freedom

As someone who has worked with the pianist’s large suite “Africa,” Clayton tried to put Peterson’s accomplishment as a composer into perspective. “Oscar Peterson was so versatile that he could write for the occasion, as well as for the artists who performed for him, and it would always be top drawer,” the bassist explained. “He was told what was needed for ‘Hymn to Freedom’ and he dug deep and immediately came up with what is now a classic. Listen to his many trio compositions and those arrangements and you’ll understand how flexible he could be.”

Watch a video from the session:

Hymn to Freedom

For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”