Like any other instrument, the piano reflects the personality of the musician playing it. This truism applies to both Horace Parlan and Oscar Peterson, and the contrast between their respective styles is not wanting in starkness. Both players are virtuosos, though Parlan's virtuosity is of a radically different order to Peterson's. Where Parlan brings echoes of gospel and the blues, Peterson brings articulacy of such a rare order that it can often appear daunting, the display of dexterity hermetically sealed and serving little purpose outside of itself. With the exception of Stan Getz no other musician in the whole of jazz has been so preoccupied with showing listeners how good he is, and the preoccupation hasn't always made for worthwhile music.
In a trio consisting of piano, guitar and bass, there's room for intimate three-way discussion. The absence of drums lends the music an airier quality, and the calibre of it isn't necessarily down to the virtuosity of the musicians, but to their ability to avoid asserting themselves at the expense of their fellows. In the case of the Peterson trio here it's as if the absence of drums forces the pianist to lay all of that virtuosity on even more thickly than usual, and the duo of guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Ray Brown are hardly wanting in accomplishment themselves. As such, the addition of drums would amount to excess as opposed to the simple rounding out of a group sound. In the case of the Parlan trio, the participants show a greater degree of intuitive understanding. Here there's music born of love for working as a group as opposed to the love of saying everything they have to say in every solo they take, as is so often the case with Peterson.
So strong is that aspect of his work that it frequently distracts from his undoubted ability to swing. Nowhere is this better exemplified here than on "Easy Listenin' Blues" where for all of his fearsome articulation Peterson shows only a rudimentary grasp of blues playing, whilst his characteristic grunts and groans, hardly overbearing on this occasion, only detract from his work as usual. In contrast, the Parlan trio's reading of Wes Montgomery's "West Coast Blues" is more airy than earthy, and both Parlan and guitarist Doug Raney take solos that stay on the right side of urbanity at the same time as they never lose sight of Montgomery's unbluesy melody.
Peterson -perhaps deliberately- makes himself something of a hostage to fortune in playing "I Like To Recognise The Tune" and in the up-tempo rendering the tune quickly becomes lost in the tide of virtuosity; here the level of syncopation between all the members of the trio can only be the product of prolonged and perhaps obsessive rehearsal -nothing is left to chance when compared with, say, the Parlan trio's reading of "Who Cares?" where understatement is a key component in a performance as unfussy as it's elegant.
When it comes down to comparison between the two pianists as such, perhaps the fact that Parlan contributed so effectively to Charles Mingus's music speaks volumes. A musician as profligate with his abilities as Peterson could never have worked so tellingly within a group under Mingus's galvanic leadership, a point that in itself tells us a lot about how damaging the primacy of ego can be to the art of small group jazz.
HORACE PARLAN TRIO - Hi-Fly - Steeplechase SCCD 31417
OSCAR PETERSON TRIO - On The Town - Verve 543 834-2