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Extended Analysis

Oscar Peterson: Debut: The Clef / Mercury Duo Recordings 1949-1951

By Published: April 11, 2010
Oscar Peterson

Debut: The Clef / Mercury Duo Recordings 1949-1951

Verve Music Group


Piano giant Oscar Peterson's professional career spanned approximately 60 years and produced a prolific amount of recordings, though most of what he waxed during his first two decades was for labels launched by jazz impresario Norman Granz. But Peterson's early duo recordings have been neglected during the CD era until this comprehensive, three-CD set of his duets with Ray Brown

Ray Brown
Ray Brown
1926 - 2002
bass, acoustic
or Major Holley
Major Holley
Major Holley
1924 - 1990
bass, acoustic
made between 1949 and 1951.

While the story of how Granz discovered the phenomenal young pianist has been told in various ways, the producer sought to gain greater exposure for him by featuring Peterson on stage in the United States. Being a Canadian, Peterson was unable to perform legally in the US due to work restrictions on foreign visitors, but Granz solved that problem by providing the pianist a ticket to his 1949 Jazz at the Philharmonic concert at Carnegie then announcing him as a surprise guest, pairing him with the virtuoso bassist Ray Brown, as a planned trio with Buddy Rich failed to materialize after the drummer was drained following his earlier set. Peterson stole the show with his three featured numbers with Brown, who was not only a magnificent timekeeper but also a significant foil for the newcomer. Disc One consists of their complete 1949 set and a return performance the following year, with Peterson's driving "Carnegie Blues" and a previously unissued "Tea For Two" being highlights. Given the age of the source material, the sound is surprisingly good.

Seven duo sessions would take place over the next year-and-a-half, five with Brown and two with Holley; Disc Two includes sessions with each. The first formal meeting with Brown produced a hit record of "Tenderly," which combined just the right mix of swing, technique and elegance. Peterson's lively "Debut," flashy "Oscar's Blues" (both with Brown) and blazing bop vehicle "Nameless" (the latter with Holley) never became widely known but revealed his promise as a composer. The pianist's first encounter with Holley included 13 other tracks; like Brown, Holley was not relegated exclusively to a supporting role but provoked Peterson with his inventive lines, particularly showing off his abilities in the still-popular Latin favorite "Tico Tico." Although "I'll Remember April" is often performed by boppers at a blazing tempo, Peterson and Holley opt for a slow, dreamy setting that works very well. Holley's potent bass line powers Peterson's energetic rendition of Johnny Hodges' neglected gem "Squatty Roo," though there is some noticeable deterioration in the source material for this track.

The third disc, except for two selections, is all Brown. "Caravan" would become a staple in Peterson's repertoire and this early effort is full of flash while swinging like mad, with Brown matching the pianist's virtuosity throughout the performance. Peterson's choppy "Salute to Garner" mimics the style of the popular pianist without sounding overly imitative while his dramatic setting of "Dark Eyes" may seem a bit excessive during the introduction but quickly settles into a swinging manner. Bob Haggart's "What's New" was still a relatively recent work and had not yet become a standard; the duo's treatment blends improvisation with its elegant theme in a satisfying way. "How High the Moon" was already a feature in the repertoires of most jazz musicians by 1950, yet Peterson restrains himself from the furious tempo that many players preferred in order to show off. "The Nearness of You" and the waltz setting of "Laura" shimmer with beauty. Peterson's bluesy "Slow Down" lists Barney Kessel and Alvin Stoller present, though neither man is audible on this track. Holley takes Brown's place for the frenetic "Lover" and the previously unissued "There's a Small Hotel."

Peterson continued to work regularly with Brown in a trio setting until the mid '60s and they reunited over the decades (though they only returned to the duo format on two '70s recordings, one to back Ella Fitzgerald) until the bassist's death in 2002. Aside from the abrasive cardboard CD holders, this boxed set is first class: terrific liner notes by David Ritz, many vintage photographs, a complete discography plus reproductions of the original album jackets and notes. Consider Debut an essential Oscar Peterson collection.

Tracks: Introduction by Norman Granz; I Only Have Eyes For You; Fine And Dandy; Carnegie Blues; Gai; Padovani; Tea For Two; Debut; They Didn't Believe Me; Lover Come Back To Me; Where Or When; Three O'Clock In The Morning; All The Things You Are; Tenderly; Oscar's Blues; Little White Lies; In The Middle Of A Kiss; Nameless; Two Sleepy People; Jumpin' With Symphony Sid; Robbins Nest; Tico Tico; Get Happy; Smoke Gets In Your Eyes; Deep Purple; Exactly Like You; I'll Remember April; Easy To Love; Taking A Chance On Love; Squatty Roo; After All; Caravan; Summer Nocturne; Salute To Garner; I Get A Kick Out Of You; What's New?; Dark Eyes; What Is It?; The Way You Look Tonight; Minor Blues; Slow Down; How High The Moon; The Nearness Of You; There's A Small Hotel; Lover; Fancy Free (Gypsy In My Soul); On The Alamo; Lullaby Of The Leaves.

Personnel: Oscar Peterson: piano; Ray Brown: bass; Major Holley: bass.

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