Oscar Peterson: Live at the Northsea Jazz Festival, 1980
This isn’t Jazz at the Philharmonic, but the feeling is much the same. A loose jam session of familiar standards (plus two ringers, of which more later) played by some of the best. The veterans, having done this many times before, look at each other and then proceed to give the people what they came to see. You hear challenges, actions and reactions, beauty and energy, all in this reissue of the 2-LP set. (Due to time constraints, one tune has been deleted. Worry not – there is plenty here to enjoy.)
With a sharp burst of sound, Peterson gets things started. He’s agile and bluesy and sets up a riff, on which Toots Thielemans states the theme of “Caravan”. He sticks to the theme, which at times he drawls. Joe Pass comes out with long angular lines and rapid fills, some rhythmic plucks, and a dash of Wes Montgomery, all in short order. Peterson starts slowly, then he runs a prodigious line of high notes, a hint of stride, and a handful of chords by the time the Toots comes back. The harmonica is tentative, then launches a great stream of notes which Peterson answers with high-pitched bleeps. Both players calm down, and Toots slowly drifts away as the tune ends – or so the audience thinks. With the applause still hot, Peterson restates the theme, this time really fast. O.P. has a brief solo which impresses me more than his first effort, Pass a short lick, Peterson strikes again with great fury, and now it does end, satisfying the audience thoroughly. And me as well.
For a jam, the sound here is very together, and no wonder – these men know each other very well. Pass and Niels Pedersen were in O.P.’s ‘Seventies trio, and all four were in a Peterson “Big Six” that jammed at Montreux in 1975. What you get from this familiarity is something else – little competitions and tests of wit. “I’m sometimes merely the accompanist,” Peterson once said. “...other times we challenge each other, improvisationally.” You hear this in the Pedersen solo of “Straight, No Chaser.” In the midst of a great walking bass, Toots utters two tiny squeaks, which I thought were feedback. Peterson responds with two high notes, and they trade back and forth, all while the bass is still soloing! Things like that keep the players on their toes, and the only winner in such battles is the audience.
Toots gets wistful on “There’s No You” which is caressed by thick chords from Pass and some restrained tinkles from Oscar. He has the bridge to himself, and he manages to sound quiet even when showering us with notes. Toots ends the theme tenderly, and Peterson gets the first solo, throwing in a bit of “Rhapsody in Blue.” His effort sounds like the bridge; pensive and vigorous at once. Pass, in his too-brief solo, shows us more Wes lines as he leads into Toots’ beautiful ending, sounding a note on which all musicians join him.
On “You Stepped Out Of a Dream”, we get Oscar’s full two-fisted piano for the first time, and it’s magnificent. A great wave of sound comes forth, and Pass’ comping is so energetic it sounds like a third hand on the piano. Toots gets his most intense so far, and after the theme Oscar resumes, returning to single note lines while crashing great chords here and there. His effort sends Pass sailing, with a solo as dextrous as Oscar’s. And then there’s Pedersen. His solo is even faster than Pass’, played with the agility of a guitar. I can only imagine the strength of his fingers. Everyone seems to solo during the group finish, and then the audience gets a long solo.
“City Lights”, composed by Peterson, is a graceful waltz. Oscar and Pass dance the theme together, then Peterson does much of his solo in double-time – or faster! Pass’ solo is simple, sticking close to the theme mostly. He then chords behind Pedersen’s strong solo, and the piano returns to close things up.
“I’m Old Fashioned” is a centerpiece to the album. Taken fast, with Toots especially lyrical, it hops around in merry fashion. Toots has his best solo here, and even indulges in some harmonica slides. Oscar keeps the mood intact; his hands move fast but they don’t take over the track – he also serves some juicy chords at the end of his solo. Pass shows us a little blues, and Toots returns; the song is easily his, and he cements his claim in his final statement.
The final cuts are slow, moody, and make a good contrast to the earlier efforts. “A Time For Love” is late-night music, Toots wailing along against a wispy guitar and distant chords. Oscar’s solo has lovely tremolos, and again the scattering of notes. Pass offers us a delicate construction, sad yet hopeful – it’s his best solo here. “Bluesology”, a Milt Jackson tune, has a slinky beat, and similar soft sound. Toots gets intense and Oscar responds in kind; the backing remains quiet. Peterson’s own solo starts simply, builds to his typical intensity, and ends in percussive chords. Pedersen’s solo is faster than anyone else’s, and is heard alone. Things get sadder with “Goodbye”, which is graced by Oscar’s strong opening and a mournful Toots, wringing all emotion from the theme. Pass’ tone sounds totally different here, and Oscar’s cascading solo does nothing to dispel the heavy sadness. And “There Is No Greater Love” returns to up-tempo, with Toots at his happiest. Os! car is also jaunty, and the notes fly off his fingers. This is probably his highlight of the set, and the Pass solo is equally good. It finishes the disc with a bang, and the audience is satisfied. I think you’ll be too.