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Oscar Peterson: Pablo's Prodigal Son

Derek Taylor By

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The Oscar Peterson Trio, with Ray Brown on bass, Herb Ellis on guitar and/or Ed Thigpen on drums represents one of the most prolific and recognizable rhythm sections in jazz. Under the Verve umbrella they cut sessions easily numbering into the double digits backing a voluminous array of swing and bop heavyweights including Lester Young, Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan and a litany of others. They were also a consummate ensemble on their own. It’s natural then that this new Pablo compendium opens with material from the trio’s bulging oeuvre.

Where the set really shines though is in its ability to bring attention to other settings Peterson took part in. Pablo honcho Norman Granz was an inveterate Peterson supporter. Even when the inevitable backlash to the pianist’s fecundity set in along with sour grapes claims that he was all technique and no soul or substance, Granz stood behind him. In fact, it seems this critical derision only bolstered Granz’s resolve to record Peterson as often and ambitiously as possible.

Starting with a long-standing post as keyboardist-in-residence for the Jazz at the Philharmonic franchise, Peterson logged countless hours in the studio and on the road. The result was phone book-sized ledger of session credits that at times could appear maddeningly consistent. Dates ran the gamut from solo recitals on electric piano to ostentatious outings incorporating full symphony orchestras and nearly every conceivable combination in-between Dimensions does a grand job at shearing away the fat and uncovering the muscle.

Peterson was and remains an unapologetic emulator of Art Tatum. If you’re going to pick one jazz pianist in the canon as mentor why not choose the one widely touted as the preeminent? But his style deviated from that of Tatum’s in important ways. Peterson was a consummate accompanist when he wanted to be, something that Tatum often had trouble with, wearing his individualistic virtuosity so prominently on his sleeve. The younger contender to the thrown also had a broader palette in terms of style. He fit elegantly into ensembles of virtually any size and shape, able to play racing stride runs, syncopated swing and angular bop with equal facility and near nonpareil touch.

Disc One covers a temporal span of nearly twenty years. The first five cuts offer a snapshot of the trio with Brown and Ellis, two from a JATP Tokyo date winter 1953 and three visiting the unit at a Hollywood Club date roughly two years later. Sound is a little scratchy, but the camaraderie between the three is on prominent display with Peterson’s mumbling playfully in time with his filigree figures. His more rhapsodic side comes out and it’s clear he’s having fun showing off his skills to each of the disparate audiences.

The next six cuts jump ahead eleven or so years to another trio date, this time taped live at the Hollywood Bowl in 67’. Ellis and Brown are gone, the capable team of Sam Jones and drummer Bobby Durham holding down the vacant chairs in their stead. Fidelity is much improved. Peterson sounds more aggressive, the pomp of his youth largely shelved in favor of a more direct attack. On the original “Smedley” he even defers to Jones, allowing the bassist space for a springy walking solo.

Coleman Hawkins’ leathery tenor joins the trio for jaunts through “Moon Glow” and “Sweet Georgia Brown.” It’s material that each man had likely played to death in their careers to date, but Peterson’s keys in tandem with Bean’s weathered, soulful tone makes for palpable magic just the same. “C-Jam Blues” comes as a single-track delegate from a Carnegie Hall jam session involving a saxophone trinity of Bean, Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter with Louis Hayes on traps. Its six-plus minutes go by much too quickly and the disc closes with three mellow pieces from a 72’ studio meeting with Brown returning on bass and Barney Kessel or Irving Ashby alternating on guitars.

As the 70s wore on Peterson found himself coupled in an increasing number of duo situations, a gimmick probably of Granz’s devising. Disc Two explores this trend in detail by drawing on material from a clutch of albums and gleaning some of Peterson’s finest pairings. When done right, duets can deliver a level of improvisatory intimacy between musicians that’s difficult to match. “You Are My Sunshine,” an impromptu nine-minute rundown taped live at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 72’, visits Peterson and Brown in just such a zone. Brown’s percussive knocks to his bass carapace weave with a warm pizzicato line while Peterson’s bright chords dance around him.

“Caravan” matches Dizzy Gillespie’s muted trumpet to the Peterson’s gilded ivories. After a galvanizing piano preface, Gillespie starts spilling notes in quick succession and his partner responds with a dizzying display of digital dexterity that welds galloping stride flourishes to the once-exotic theme. The pianist’s long and eventful association with Pass earns a two-track representation. Their deconstruction of “Stella By Starlight” supplies predictable examples of the naked virtuosity each was renowned for. “Summertime” is surprisingly different Peterson turns to clavichord, sounding much like an electronic harpsichord, and Pass straps on what sounds like nylon-string acoustic. Hearing the familiar haunting melody voiced with such odd-instrumentation is treat.

Other partnerships represented on the disc include ones with Roy Eldridge (“Little Jazz”), a ruddy-cheeked John Faddis (“Blues for Birks”), Milt Jackson (“Oh Lady, Be Good”) and Clark Terry (“On a Slow Boat to China”) culled from various locations. Swede Niels-Henning, Peterson’s frequent bassist during the era, also receives his due with a reading of Fletcher Henderson’s “Soft Winds.” His thick amplified strings and funk-inflected articulation make for an instructive contrast with the more bop-grounded style of Brown. Ella Fitzgerald makes an appearance as lone vocal partner of the box on “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and “Hogtown Blues,” a solo from a 72’ Netherlands show caps things off.

Disc Three tracks a fifteen-plus year trajectory from 1973 through 1986. The focus is on Peterson’s various trios and quartets with Niels-Henning and Joe Pass cropping up as the most frequent colleagues. They hit a furious clip on the opening ‘Blues Etude,” taken from a 73’ Chicago gig, and the speed of their interplay sets the attendant audience to cheering. Peterson’s sprinting runs, perfectly executed and almost impossibly frenetic, recall directly the rampant virtuosity of Tatum to a degree unmatched on the set. Niels Henning locks in with the drums of Jake Hanna for an Estonian gig performance of “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans.” The loping tempo and easygoing repartee between the three acts as respite from the rigorous athleticism of the previous track.

“I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” from an L.A. studio session, unites sideman old and new as Brown teams with Pass. Peterson amicably takes a backseat to the pair’s interactions during the tune’s opening minutes. It’s a thrill to hear two receive such a significant share of the space. As if to suggest that no combination was out of bounds there’s even a cut, “Reunion Blues” featuring Peterson with both Brown and Niels-Henning in tandem. Fidelity is clean and direct and the heavily syncopated tune offers another fascinating study in the bassists’ disparate styles.

The presence of royalty is felt on “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You)” when Count Basie drops by a Hollywood Studio in 78’ to join Peterson with bassist John Heard and drummer Louis Bellson. The meeting isn’t nearly as monumental as one might hope, but Basie’s regal economy rubs off on Oscar and a relaxing swing prevails. Bellson sounds beautiful on brushes to boot.

Four lengthy final tracks highlight variations on Peterson’s working quartet. Pass and drummer Martin Drew are constants, but the bass duties switch between Niels-Henning and Dave Young. “Nigerian Marketplace,” a minor-keyed Peterson original recorded at a Tokyo gig in 82’ is an uncommon entry in his songbook and an immediate highlight. Niels-Henning’s highly melodic pizzicato and Pass’ shimmering, at times even funky, chording build a flexible lattice for the composer’s modernistic solo while Drew draws out an equally contemporary beat. Young’s role is more resolutely supportive than his counterpart, especially on the Ellington medley “Perdido/Caravan” the first of two disc-closing numbers from an 86’ concert in Los Angeles. After an episodic extemporization by Pass, the bassist plucks out a plush walking line for Peterson to turn to roam far and wide across.

The set’s final disc plumbs the various treasures of Peterson’s many all-star and large ensemble groupings for Pablo. JATP assemblages play an expectedly heavy part in this facet of his career and over half of the tracks are gathered from such conclaves. The opening interpretation of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the “A” Train,” taken from the same gig as disc one’s “C-Jam Blues,” fits Peterson’s keys into the Ellington Orchestra led by the Duke himself. The result is fairly anti-climactic with obligatory emphasis on piano in place of the usual horn parts.

Peterson pulls a similar coup on the next track, this time ousting Basie from the ivories at a Santa Monica gig in 72’. He leads a variant of the Count’s band featuring guest paleface Stan Getz through a lengthy and ripping version of Roy Eldridge’s “5400 North.” The contrast between Getz’s swift bantamweight phrasing and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis’ gritty bark represents but one of the tune’s numerous pleasures. Free-wheeling solos from trombonist Al Grey, Eldridge and “Sweets” Edison and Peterson in an uncustomary rear position rank as others. Two and a half years later Basie reinserts himself for “Exactly Like You,” sharing the rhythm combo of guitarist Freddie Green, Brown and Bellson with his would-be usurper.

Milt Jackson and Toots Thielmans make for stranger bedfellows with the Peterson trio on “Au Privave,” extracted from a Montreux appearance in 75’. Thielmans’ chromatic harmonica sounds gimmicky in the context and in combination with Jackson’s busy mallet play the combination comes off a bit overdone. “If I Were a Bell” from Montreux 77’works better in part because of the stellar horn section on hand and a more relaxed execution. The trumpets of Gillespie and Terry vie amiably with the saw-toothed tenor of Lockjaw over the span of the ten-plus minute jam. Stephane Grappelli’s sterling contributions to “Nuages,” a tune made intimately familiar to the violinist through countless shared performances with its composer, Django Reinhardt, keep the winsome track record intact.

“Some of These Days” and “Lady Di’s Waltz” actualize the orchestral ambitions mentioned earlier in this article. The former tune employs large scale studio overdubs and finds Peterson eschewing piano for a surprising turn at vocals. The latter accomplishes the augmentation live. Both are enjoyable experiments, but the largess of the symphony surroundings ends up siphoning off some of the charm inherent in Peterson’s small group work in exchange for saccharine sentimentality. The box closes with a welcome return to just such a pocket-scale setting on “Stuffy,” a final hard-swinging studio selection from an 86’ meeting between the pianist’s trio, “Sweets” Edison and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson.

Thankfully, Peterson is still around, performing and recording with a regularity that shows little sign of waning. His Pablo years serve as near-perfect bookends to the prolificacy of his more popular Verve ones. Norman Granz’s relentless championing and financing of his friend’s talents resulted in an eclectic body of work that remains among of most dependable in jazz. In many ways Peterson was the ideal patron of such attention, ready and willing to involve his pianistic skills in virtually any artistic pursuit. Many are represented here and this box does a fine job at spinning the numerous threads into a single, manageable braid. Both novices and connoisseurs of Peterson’s music will discover much to enjoy.

Visit Pablo on the web.


Disc One: That Old Black Magic/ Tenderly/ How High the Moon/ The Way You Look Tonight/ You Are Too Beautiful/ Smedley/ Someday My Prince Will Come/ Daytrain/ Moonglow/ Sweet Georgia Brown/ C-Jam Blues/ Wes’ Tune/ Okie Blues/ You Can Depend on Me. Disc Two: You Are My Sunshine/ Caravan/ Stella By Starlight/ Little Jazz/ Soft Winds/ Mean To Me/ Oh, Lady Be Good/ On a Slow Boat to China/ Summertime/ Blues for Birks/ How Long Has This Been Going On?/ Hogtown Blues. Disc Three: Blues Etude/ Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?/ I’m Getting Sentimental Over You/ Reunion Blues/ I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You)/ Goodbye/ Falling In Love With Love/ Nigerian Marketplace/ Sometimes I’m Happy/ Medley: Perdido/Caravan/ Cool Walk. Disc Four: Take the “A” Train/ 5400 North/ Exactly Like You/ Au Privave/ If I Were a Bell/ Nuages/ Some of These Days/ Lady Di’s Waltz/ Stuffy.

Players: Oscar Peterson- piano, clavichord; Herb Ellis- guitar; Ray Brown- bass; Sam Jones- bass; Bobby Durham- drums; Coleman Hawkins- tenor saxophone; Johnny Hodges- alto saxophone; Benny Carter- alto saxophone; Louis Hayes- drums; Barney Kessel- guitar; Irving Ashby- guitar; Dizzy Gillespie- trumpet; Joe Pass- guitar; Roy Eldridge- trumpet; Niels-Henning Orsted Peterson- bass; Harry “Sweets” Edison-trumpet; Milt Jackson- vibes; Clark Terry- trumpet; Jon Faddis- trumpet; Ella Fitgerald- vocals; Jake Hanna- drums; Count Basie- piano; John Heard- bass; Louis Bellson- drums; Martin Drew- drums; Dave Young- bass; Duke Ellington- leader; Buster Cooper- trombone; Chuck Conners- trombone; Laurence Brown- trombone; Cat Anderson- trumpet; Mercer Ellington- trumpet; Herb Jones- trumpet; Cootie Williams- trumpet; Harry Carney, Russell Procope, Johnny Hodges, Jimmy Hamilton, Paul Gonsalves- saxophones; John Lamb- bass; Rufus Jones- drums; Al Grey- trombone; Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis- tenor saxophone; Stan Getz- tenor saxophone; Freddie Green- guitar; Ed Thigpen- drums; Toots Thielmans- harmonica; Stephane Grappelli- violin; Mickey Roker- drums; Ed Bickert- guitar; Jerry Fuller- drums; Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson- alto saxophone.


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