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Extended Analysis

Oscar Peterson: Date with Oscar

By Published: March 20, 2008
Oscar Peterson

Date with Oscar

Membran Records


Alongside of the sad news of jazz piano legend Oscar Peterson's passing comes Date With Oscar, a ten-disc retrospective of his activities from 1950-56, a period of artistic flowering and prodigious productivity. Date is an uneven set, chock-full of gems, both lesser- and well-known, yet also containing expendable tracks, inexplicable duplications, and a goodly number of cuts in which Peterson is little more than a supportive sideman. In general, however, there is enough gold in this mine to compensate for its less precious ore.

Disc 1 is 24 karat: a reissue of the hard-to-find album simply titled 1951, an early duet date with fellow Montrealite, bassist Austin Roberts, in a sterling collection of blues, swing (including workouts over "Flying Home," "I've Got Rhythm," "Seven Come Eleven," "Air Mail Special" and "Get Happy"), Tin Pan Alley standards ("For You," "Night and Day" and "Body and Soul" are standouts), and two amazing forays into the Third Stream: "To a Wild Rose," replete with quotes from the Western Classical piano repertoire, and Brahms' "Hungarian Dance."

Much material for the set is culled from Peterson's "Songbook" series, recorded November 1952 through November 1954, resulting in nine albums compiling the work of Jerome Kern, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Vincent Youmans, Harold Arlen and Harry Warren. Disc 3 contains the entire Oscar Peterson Plays the Duke Ellington Songbook (with an extra track), Disc 8 reissues the Arlen songbook, Disc 9 the Basie, and Discs 2 and 5 include tracks from the remaining six albums of the series (Disc 5 has duplicate tracks of Ellington's "Just A-Sittin' and A-Rockin'" and "Prelude to a Kiss" already included on Disc 3).

Most of the songbook tracks are played by Peterson's trio, either in its earlier configuration with bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Barney Kessel, or in its later (and most famous) version, with Herb Ellis replacing Kessel. Like Ella Fitzgerald's similar series, the songbook albums are remarkably consistent, with faithfully rendered melodies and short, to-the-point solos. Lack of excessive prearrangement lends these sides a sense of spontaneity and concise clarity. It is enlightening to compare Kessel's off-the-cuff, ever-so-bluesy phrasing with Ellis' tensile strength drive and rippling legato lines. The Basie set is suitably swinging, enhanced by the addition of Buddy Rich on drums, whose impeccable timing locks in tightly with the trio; "Jumpin' at the Woodside" has great solos all around, "Blues for Basie" shows the group's laid-back side and "One O'Clock Jump" is solid swing. The Ellington set highlights Peterson's ways with a melody, adding artful flourishes and embellishments to the maestro's tunes yet remaining faithful to their essence. The Arlen set provides the perfect set of vehicles for Peterson's sophisticated blues aesthetic, from the lush opening chords of "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Over the Rainbow" to the bent notes of "Stormy Weather" and "Blues in the Night." Other highlights include Youman's "I Want to Be Happy" and Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?" from Disc 5.

Disc 4 features Fred Astaire on vocals backed by the Jazz at the Philharmonic All-Stars, compiling all the tracks from The Astaire Story, Vols. 1-2 and part of Volume 3, complete with Hollywood-style introductions from Astaire and occasional tap-dancing. It's a tall drink of Astaire for an Oscar Peterson set, without much soloing from the keyboardist, but "Ol' Top Hat and Tails" knew his way around a song and has much to offer in the way of hip phraseology. Other sessions feature Norman Granz' first-call musicians under various leaders. Disc 7 features Lionel Hampton dates backed by Peterson's trio with Buddy Rich; one jam session adds Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Harris, Flip Philips, and Ben Webster. The Hampton tracks are longer, allowing soloists to stretch out.

Discs 5 and 6 feature sessions led by Benny Carter ("Laura," "The Song is You," "That Old Black Magic"), Billie Holiday ("Lover Come Back to Me," "What a Little Moonlight Can Do"), Ben Webster ("Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "Pennies from Heaven"), and Lester Young ("Ad Lib Blues," "Tea for Two," "Just You, Just Me," "Indiana"). While these are not Peterson's dates, they display his accompaniment chops and the leaders often give him ample room to ply his improvisatory wares. Additionally, these colorful personalities are effective foils for Peterson's exuberance, complementing his heat with cooler tones.

The best of Date is saved for last: Disc 10 is a reissue of the very fine At the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, a date representing the Peterson-Brown-Ellis trio at their peak, with extended arrangements, blistering tempos, inspired improvisations, and intuitive empathy. Here Peterson is less the featured soloist and more an ace among peers. "52nd Street" burns down the barn; "Love You Madly" is played as three pulses beating to one heart, with Peterson groaning to a climax in two-handed tremolo; "Nuages" features Ellis' fine melodic interpretation; "How High the Moon," "Flamingo" and "Falling in Love with Love" allow the ever-present but rarely featured Brown to come to the fore, and "Noreen's Nocturne" and "How About You?" demonstrate the incredible cohesion of this group, negotiating complex arrangements with offhand precision in the spirit of friendly competition. This set is paragon example of what made Peterson so great and why he'll be missed.

Track listing:

CD1: Oscar's Blues; For You; Pennies From Heaven; Whispering; Body & Soul; Flying Home; Hungarian Dance; Gypsy in My Soul; (I Don't Stand a) Ghost of a Chance with You; I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles; I've Got Rhythm; Tea for Two; The Man I Love; Rose Room; Yesterdays; Seven Come Eleven; Just You; To A Wild Rose; Air Mail Special; Night & Day; Get Happy.

CD2: Laura; Easter Parade; Long Ago & Far Away; Without a Song; I Want to Be Happy; The Lady is a Tramp; Blue Moon; Lover; I Only Have Eyes for You; You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby; I Can't Give You Anything but Love; Jam Session for a Dancer.

CD3: These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You); Cotton Tail; Sophisticated Lady; Just A-sittin' and A-rockin'; I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good); Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me; Don't Get Around Much Anymore; In a Mellow Tone; Things Ain't What They Used to Be; Prelude to a Kiss; John Hardy's Wife; Rockin' in Rhythm; Take the "A" Train.

CD4: Isn't This a Lovely Day; Puttin' on the Ritz; I Used to Be Color Blind; The Continental; Let's Call the Whole Thing Off; Change Partners; 'S Wonderful; Lovely to Look At; They All Laughed; Cheek to Cheek; Steppin' Out with My Baby; The Way You Look Tonight; I've Got My Eyes on You; Dancing in the Dark; The Carioca; Nice Work if You Can Get It; New Sun in the Sky; I Won't Dance; Fast Dances (Ad Lib Instrumental); Top Hat White Tie & Tails; No Strings; I Concentrate on You; I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket.

CD5: Cheek to Cheek; It Ain't Necessarily So; Just A-Sittin' and A-Rockin'; What is This Thing Called Love?; Prelude to a Kiss; Fascinating Rhythm; Angel Eyes; Just You, Just Me; The Song is You; The Second Astaire Blues.

CD6: Je Ne Sais Pas; Lover Come Back to Me; Ad Lib Blues; Laura; What a Little Moonlight Can Do; Don't Get Around Much Any More; That Old Black Magic; Tea for Two; Pennies from Heaven; Indiana.

CD7: Always; Star Duet; Soft Winds; Tenderly; Sweethearts on Parade; Hallelujah!; Date with Oscar; Jam Blues.

CD8: That Old Black Magic; Come Rain or Come Shine; Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea; I've Got the World on a String; As Long as I Live; Over the Rainbow; Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive; Let's Fall in Love; Stormy Weather (Keeps Raining All the Time); Blues in the Night; It's Only a Paper Moon; I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues.

CD9: Jumpin' at the Woodside; Blues for Basie; Blue & Sentimental; Lester Leaps In; Jive at Five; Easy Does It; Topsy; 9:20 Special; One O'Clock Jump; Broadway.

CD10: 52nd Street; Love You Madly; Nuages; How High the Moon; Gypsy in My Soul; Noreen's Nocturne; Swinging on a Star; Flamingo; How About You?; Falling in Love with Love.

Personnel: Oscar Peterson: piano; Austin Roberts: bass; Ray Brown: bass; Barney Kessel: guitar; Herb Ellis: guitar; Fred Astaire (tap dance & vocals); Charlie Shavers: trumpet; Flip Phillips: tenor sax; Alvin Stoller: drums; Irving Ashby: guitar; J. C. Heard: drums; Bill Harris: trombone; Buddy Rich: drums; Lionel Hampton: vibraphone, vocals; Buddy de Franco: clarinet; Billie Holiday: vocals; Joe Newman: trumpet; Paul Quinchette: tenor sax; Freddie Green: guitar; Lester Young: tenor sax; Benny Carter: alto & tenor saxophones; Ed Shaughnessy: drums; Harry 'Sweets' Edison: trumpet; Roy Eldridge: trumpet; Dizzy Gillespie: trumpet; Ben Webster: tenor sax.

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