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Sorting through our mixed feelings about Oscar Peterson

Oscar Peterson
David Redfern
/
Redferns

It’s easy to love the grand, effulgent splendor of Oscar Peterson’s piano style. It’s also easy to feel you don’t love it enough. That’s a position we unexpectedly share as longtime listeners, coming to the Peterson altar with a balance of deep respect and uneasy ambivalence.

O.P. was an indisputable wizard at the keyboard, an artist whose extravagant technique and unerring sense of time set him in a class apart — whether on the Jazz at the Philharmonic stage, behind a singer like Ella Fitzgerald, or in one of his own marquee trios. But you’ll find ample skepticism in the jazz-historical record, from fellow artists like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk as well as critics like Dan Morgenstern, who once wrote, in a JATP review: “As is so often the case with Peterson, there was a bit too much dazzle and not enough variety in mood and tempo — but it was brisk and swinging music.”

We understand the mixed feelings in that statement, a sort of grudging admiration that seems to wish things had just gone another way. And the arrival of a worshipful new Hulu documentary – Oscar Peterson: Black + White — prompted some soul-searching on our part. (Earlier this month, it also occasioned an upbeat conversation between WBGO’s Gary Walker and two of the filmmakers, Barry Avrich and Mark Selby.)

So we decided to work out our thoughts in conversation, with plenty of musical examples. Our producer, Trevor Smith, is an O.P. superfan, and we couldn’t resist dragging him into the fray.

One more thing, and it’s bittersweet: this is the final episode of Jazz United, for reasons we aren’t at liberty to discuss here. Nate shares some thoughts about it at the top of the episode. The show archive will be here for you, and rest assured that the two of us are by no means finished exchanging ideas about the music.

We’d like to thank everyone who joined us for this ride, and everyone who shared their thoughts with us. We’ll see you out there.

Further Reading:

This I Dig:

  • Nate is digging Robert Glasper’s Black Radio III
  • Greg digs John Scofield’s Yankee Go Home

Jazz United has been a production of WBGO Studios. Our producer is Trevor Smith.

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Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music. At the age of 3 in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, he was borrowing his father’s records and spinning them on his Fisher Price turntable. Taking in diverse sounds of artistry from Miles Davis, Les McCann, James Brown, Weather Report and Jimi Hendrix gave shape to Greg's musical foundation and started him on a path of nonstop exploration.
A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.