How do you criticize pianist Oscar Peterson? The two primary meanings of such a question expose the divide among those who must confront his talentand, like it or not, no musician or supporter of the music can duck the issues raised by the most prolifically recorded pianist in jazz history. To the one camp, Peterson's playing represents a sort of gold standard and is therefore beyond criticism; to the other side, his inarguable virtuosity and flawless technique reduce him to a glib pop phenomenon unworthy of serious criticism. John McDonough's extended essay included with this handsomely packaged 7-disc set of nine, pre-guitarist Herb Ellis
, Oscar Peterson Trio recording sessions, while remaining objective and informative in detailing the background of the recordings, offers up one major surprise: frequent and abrupt dismissals of Peterson's playing were commonplace among critics even at the beginning of his entry into American public consciousness.
In 1950, less than a year following his New York debut, the Montreal phenom would win the Down Beat
annual Readers Poll, outdistancing Dave Brubeck
and Art Tatum
. In 1953, the year the publication inaugurated its Critics Poll, Peterson was again the runaway favorite with readers; with the critics, on the other hand, he barely squeaked out a victory, and by 1955 the combative Canadian barely registered enough votes with the "experts" to land a place at the bottom of a list that had Tatum decisively ensconced on top. What distinguishes Peterson from Tatum? And is OP truly one of "the greats"? Anyone seeking answers to these questionsand how can any serious follower of the music ignore either?needs to start with this revelatory if not essential Mosaic box set.
For many casual Peterson followers, the years preceding the pianist's association with Herb Ellis, who joined the group after the sessions contained in the present collection, are either lost in a mist or assumed too unproductive to count. (A popular internet jazz site reports that the 1951-52 composer songbooks issuing from these sessions incorporated drummer Ed Thigpen
, who didn't join the group until 1958!) But Peterson had become a presence on the Canadian scene as early as 1940, when he won a talent contest eventually leading to his signing a recording contract with RCA Canada in 1945. And the years 1949-1951 saw the prodigious talent being groomed and readied by Norman Granz for his break-out tour with Jazz at the Philharmonic and subsequent meteoric rise before a large and diverse American audience. Consequently, it's mistaken to regard the years 1951-53 as the portrait of a fledgling artist. Moreover, as McDonough's notes inform us, even a 7-disc collection represents but a small fraction of the recorded output of an artist in full flight, fully qualified at this early stage to discharge practically any task required of him.
The Peterson aplomb is so apparent on the first disc of this set and so consistent with the mastery displayed on the last disc that, at the very least, charges of gradually "selling out" for higher poll rankings are immediately laid to rest. Similarly, the experience of listening to the recordings in sequence is less about the evolution of genius than about changes in the contexts of its expressionin terms of musicians, producers, and technologies. The reader of the booklet will gain respect for the judgment, integrity and plain decency of Peterson's primary producer-manager and early champion, Norman Granz
; the listener of these 126 musical tracks (almost all master takes) will concur with Peterson's reported assertion that his best performances more often than not could be traced to the presence of a single musician: guitarist Barney Kessel.
On eight of the tracks from disc one the guitarist is Irving C Ashby
, of the recently dissolved Nat Cole Trio. The results are predictably competent 3-minute treatments of the standards, each more or less indistinguishable from readings of the same material by pianists Cole or George Shearing
. But on the final track, "The Astaire Blues," clocking in at 12 minutes, the guitarist is Barney Kessel
, and the pianist is the relentless and irresistible swing machine that in the minds of the jazz public could be but one musician: Oscar Peterson. When referring to his group playing, Peterson typically favored the language of blood sport
over more polite, empathetic terminology. About this first meeting with Kessel, he confided to writer Gene Lees: "Having an opposing force...creatively, shocked me. He came hungry to play and the first night Barney Kessel nailed me to the cross twelve ways to Sunday."
The evidence of "The Astaire Blues" as well as the first five extended tracks on disc two, beginning with "Tea for Two" and ending with "Stompin' at the Savoy," certainly supports Peterson's characterization of the occasion as a heated exchange though hardly of a one-sided affair with the pianist ultimately immobilized let alone impaled on a cross. Rather, each performance is more on the order of a boxing match. Peterson completes his solo turn but then feels compelled to go an extra chorus because of the surprisingly adept counterpunching of Kessel who, in turn, decides he's not about to let the pianist have the last word. And so the game of one-upmanship, or leap-frogging, continues in a manner that, from the listener's viewpoint, can prove no less exhausting than it is exhilarating. Moreover, fueling the flame of this "trio" session composed of Peterson, Kessel, and bassist Ray Brown
is drummer Alvin Stoller
, a Sinatra favorite brought in by Granz to turn up the heat for some serious cooking.
Perhaps there is no better occasion than "The Astaire Blues" for taking on the questions about Peterson's relation to Tatum and about his own place in jazz history. A Down Beat
critic, writing in 1952, gave the recording a grudging three stars, characterizing it as a "barrage of fast blues cliches...designed to entice the hip squares." But far from "playing to the crowd," Peterson's performance on "The Astaire Blues" is at once the culmination, or fullest realization, of the so-called "swing era" while at the same time laying the groundwork for the piano trio as a major rhythmic force.
Appreciating Peterson's accomplishment with "The Astaire Blues" requires some consideration of the history of "swing," which for brevity's sake can be reduced to three seminal "moments" in the first 50 years of the music's recorded history. The first was trumpeter Louis Armstrong's unaccompanied four quarter-notes introducing "West End Blues" in 1928, a wake-up call which, as Gunther Schuller has carefully demonstrated in Early Jazz
(Oxford Press, 1986), not only distinguished Armstrong from all contemporaneous musicians but redefined a 4/4 measure of four beats in terms resistant to representation by Western notation schemes. Armstrong exposed the limitations of mathematical representations of time and, moreover, modeled a particle that, rather than being merely another constituent in a chain of so much "agitated activity," was a microcosm of a space-time energy field! "Syncopation," a term applicable to most of the musicians (including Armstrong's own sidemen) on recordings of the 1920s and early 1930s, was no longer adequate to account for the complex, forceful and authoritative rhythms issuing from the horn of the founding father himself.
The second historic moment in the evolution of swing was Count Basie's taking over leadership in 1935 of the Bennie Moten
Orchestra. If Armstrong aimed his horn in the direction of an energy field to be tapped by succeeding generations of musicians, Basie, along with guitarist Freddie Green
, bassist Walter Page
, and drummer Jo Jones
, assumed responsibility for constructing such a playground, demonstrating its limitless, heretofore unrealized, potentiallargely through the flowing, always-in-play solo flights of tenor saxophonist Lester Young.
And now we come to that equally important, heretofore unknown, third momentthe meeting of Oscar Peterson and Barney Kessel, as witnessed by best bassman Ray Brown and leading to a tempering of time so deep-rooted, a groove so inescapable, a vibration so kinetic and visceral as to remain to this day the standard of measurement for the modern rhythm section as well its unequaled expression. To appreciate the impact of Peterson, one has but to compare the sense of swing in the piano trios that preceded himNat "King" Cole
, Teddy Wilson
, Earl Hines
, Bud Powell
, George Shearing, Dave Brubeckwith those that followedRed Garland
, Wynton Kelly
, Ahmad Jamal
, Gene Harris
, Monty Alexander
, Benny Green
, Geoffrey Keezer
(with Ray Brown). To hear several measures of Peterson improvising over walking 4/4 is, first, to hear the only pianist capable of swinging this hard and, second, to experience the epitome of swing itself! All that Armstrong hinted at, everything that countless numbers of players aspire to achieve during the course of an improvised solo that emphasizes time as much as melody and harmony is realized in Peterson's command of the pulse. Were it not for Oscar Peterson, it's likely we would never know what swing is capable of being
or, for that matter, of doing
to each of us as listeners.
The lock-step synchronization, the flawless symmetry, the alteration of physical chemistry that occurs when time passing becomes a participatory sport, though hallmarks of the "Peterson groove," are admittedly received variously among followers of the music, not to mention influential musicians such as trumpeter Miles Davis, who was among the first high-profile artists to be dismissive of Peterson. Recently, a video on the internet of Peterson with saxophonist John Coltrane
has provoked discussion about a perceived incompatibility between the pair, for some listeners exposing a rupture
that is more to the discredit of the pianist's willful, unyielding groove than of the determined high-mindedness of the visionary horn player, whose need for creative latitude refuses to accede to the game plan of someone accustomed to commanding the entire field of play.
Like the dismissive Down Beat
critic and easily-offended Coltrane crowd, champions of Art Tatum's preeminence are unlikely to greet "The Astaire Blues" as a performance of historic significance. Tatum, like saxophonist Charlie Parker
, was a "three-minute musician," a genius capable of compressing the most complex and creative melodic-harmonic-rhythmic constructions into a mere two choruses. He impregnates the moment with his fertile imagination, making it contain more musical meaning than most listeners are capable of grasping in a lifetime. By contrast, Oscar Peterson "takes his time"all of it. The riffs and cliches follow one another seamlessly and with a relentless, uninterrupted drivea torrential timestream affording the listener the ride of a lifetime, as visceral, exhilarating and delirious as it gets. After a Tatum performance, the listener is left asking the question: "How
did he do that?"; after a levitating trip on the Peterson Express the more likely response is, simply: "Did
he really do that?" (The video illustration following this review should make the distinction unmistakable.)
One of the Peterson trio performances in the present collection, Vincent Youmans' "Hallelujah," invites comparison with Tatum's trio performance of the same song (Hampton-Tatum-Rich Trio
, Clef 1955). Whereas Peterson retains Ray Brown's bass, Tatum drops the bassist in favor of the drums of Buddy Rich. As a result, the Tatum performance integrates the lower notes of the piano into the harmonies, voicings and rhythmic feel of the song, which rhythmically falls somewhere between the two-beat strong/light trochees of stride piano and the earth-bound 4/4 thumps of Rich's bass drum pedal. Swing is generated on top of these rhythmic "demarcations" by the busy improvisations of Tatum, who continues to solo right through the choruses of vibraphonist Lionel Hampton
. By contrast, the Peterson "Hallelujah" generates a deep, altogether rare, buoyancy through the pianist's interaction with Brown's unfaltering steps on a resilient, supple surface over which Peterson, the ever-insistent field general, nonetheless makes it his responsibility to exercise complete control.
The point is that any consideration of OP's significance must take seriously his singular, unprecedented internal timepiecewhich is not to say that his technique is lacking in other areas. When he chooses not to kick a song into overdrive, he's capable of mining its potential with a technical mastery that is perhaps as close to Tatum as any musician has come. The velocity of his single-note lines would not be so dazzling were it not for the left hand's perfectly synchronized doubling of the right hand's dare-devilish flights. The runs interpolated so fluidly between the main melodic phrases would not seem so intimidating were it sufficient for the pianist to play them as single-note filler phrases. It's when he harmonizes
each notetransforming the single-note passage into a descending cascade or rising fountain of soundthat the ghost of Tatum is invoked. And not least, it's the consistency of his unfailingly mellifluous, round-shaped tones
(more glossy, or "silken," than Nat Cole's)regardless of tempo, intensity, and texturethat he summons forth the exquisite ear and finely-tempered touch of the blind progenitor, Tatum.
At least two of the 126 tracks on the present collection provoke immediate comparison with heralded Cole recordings of the same tunes. Both pianists take memorable, double-tempo, extended excursions on that most recorded of all popular songs, "Body and Soul," with Cole's the winning performance on the basis of his humorous deflection of the non-stop arsenal of tricky guitar licks served up by the "Wizard of Waukesha," Les Paul (Jazz at the Philharmonic: "Body and Soul"
, Jasmine 1944/2001). But on "The Man I Love" Peterson's trio creates a miniature masterpiece that is no less faithful to Gershwin's melody than Cole's version (The Best of the Nat King Cole Trio 1943-1947
, Capitol 1992) but otherwise outswings it by a decisive margin.
Once the pianist gets on with the assignment he has been giveni.e. to record "songbooks," each representing not only the best melodies by America's best composers but also the greatest number of such melodies that a 12" LP (to begin with, a 10" LP) can containthe interest for the listener lies in Peterson's resolution of a continual tension between, on the one hand, his obligation to the composer and, on the other, his creative instincts as a "killer" player, always keen on "Swingin' Til the Girls Come Home" (an Oscar Pettiford tune performed here as a Peterson original with the title "Pettiford's Tune").
Fred Astaire, frequently cited as the favorite singer of the major songwriters of the first four decades of the past century, was no doubt an important influence on Peterson's willingness to rein in, at least temporarily, the power and extravagance. While working with the song and dance man on 1952's 4-volume The Fred Astaire Story
he couldn't help but be impressed by the performer's virtual servitude to the song and its composer, making the performer all but transparent. Partly as a result of witnessing Astaire's unqualified trust in the composer's material, the pianist was able to deliver what amounts to no fewer than 23 tracks on a compact disc, eloquently compressing a Kern, Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, Rodgers or Ellington classic into the 2:30 to 3:30 minutes allotted him.
The arrangements are looser and simpler than those of the Benny Goodman
, Nat Cole, or Les Paul trios, yet Peterson manages to stamp his imprimatur on each. Often Kessel's presence is that of a rhythmic catalystlaunching a Peterson flight with well-placed chords and galvanizing riffs, tapping percussively on the soundboard of the instrument, playing rhythm guitar in the manner Freddie Green. But on numerous tunes, piano and guitar take turns, as on Gershwin's "Strike Up the Band," which features the pair on one-bar exchanges along with improvised counterpoint on the melody followed by two blistering Peterson choruses, then a single one by Kessel answered by another full chorus by the reinvigorated pianist and, finally, a return to the call-response single-bar tags of the opening chorus.
Like numerous instrumentalistsfrom trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Chet Baker to drummers Buddy Rich
and Grady Tate
Oscar Peterson was a more-than-credible singer, and in the vein of a romantic crooner at that. Disc five contains the vocal performances a reluctant Peterson would record, at Granz' insistence, on May 21, 1953. The pianist's more uncritical supporters blame his limited vocal productivity on his "copy-cat" resemblance to Nat Cole as a singer (the same could be said of early Ray Charles
). As pleasant as these tracks arefrom "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" to "Autumn in New York"suffice it to say that any less-than-cursory, impartial comparison between the two pianist-singers will conclusively lay to rest the oft-repeated claim that Peterson's vocal stylings were indistinguishable from Cole's (Peterson would perform one additional vocal album, a recorded tribute to Cole following the great singer's deathWith Respect to Nat
, Verve 1965).
Although the pianist's vocal projects may be passed off as expendable side-trips for all but the most devoted, or especially curious, Peterson fans, their importance to the pianist's unrivaled instrumental command of the American Songbook should not be taken lightly. Peterson, more than even Art Tatum, understood the lyrics and phrasing of melodies normally regarded as inaccessible to purely instrumental treatment. Especially with Porter lyrics exhibiting the witty wordplay of "Anything Goes," the clever cataloguing device of "Let's Do It," and the urgent drama of "In the Still of the Night," hearing the songs performed wordlessly by Peterson's piano is at the same time to hear them afresh and to discover the melodic genius of a composer whose poetic muse, at least in these instances, deserves no more than half of the credit.
Give all 100% of the credit for the assemblage of these recordings, many on the verge of extinction, to Mosaic, from the exhaustive and careful documentation of dates and original album titles to the two extended essaysone about Peterson's activities in general and the other about the recording sessions in particular. The producers, moreover, are commendably obsessive about identifying analog sources, whether master tapes, 78s or LPs. Regardless of the sources, the results are primarily pristine pressings, notwithstanding some surface noise on the earliest examples (in part a trade-off when drums are not present to disguise upper-frequency imperfections) and the rare instance of uneven volume levels (Peterson's voice is initially faint in the mix on "Spring Is Here").
Above all, this stunning collection is a reminder that the most prodigious of all pianists (Peterson would become virtually the "house pianist" at Verve Records, established by Granz in 1956) was paradoxically more prolific than many had previously realized while at the same time frequently employing a "less is more" approach to piano playing that even Count Basie, the very exemplar of economy, would have applauded. Finally, for any instrumentalist who wishes to learn the American Songbook without reference to Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald
, or fake books, it's unlikely there are better alternatives than these authoritative offerings.