Oscar Peterson Tribute: Simply The Best

Mark Sabbatini By

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The finale and possibly the highlight is vocalist Measha Brueggergosman leading the jazz quartet and a choir in an arrangement of 'Hymn To Freedom,' considered by some to be Peterson's most spiritual work.
Hearing Oscar Peterson late in life, his left hand rendered useless by a stroke and arthritis, could be a terribly sad thing, sometimes no more than a whisper of the giant that had me scouring CD bins after first listening to him.

But his magnetism was never just about music, as his fellow Canadians and several jazz legends made clear during a tribute in Toronto shortly after his death.

The two-hour "Oscar Peterson Tribute - Simply The Best" concert January 12, 2008, at Roy Thomson Hall drew a capacity crowd of 2,600, some of whom lined up at 5 a.m. in the frigid, windy weather for free tickets to the event 11 hours later. Less brave souls and those unable to get tickets were able to hear the concert on CBC Radio-Canada, which has posted the broadcast online as part of its "Concerts On Demand" series.

Peterson, who grew up in Montreal, died December 23, 2007, at age 82. The tribute concert is divided roughly equally between spoken tributes by people such as Canadian Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean and Quincy Jones, and musical performances from artists such as Herbie Hancock and Monty Alexander. All of it is entertaining and enlightening (who knew Hancock likely would have been an electrical engineer without hearing Peterson's playing), although putting just the songs on a single CD for subsequent listening might be a good idea.

Peterson's daughter, Celine, 16, says her father, who started his day "with a jar of peanut butter and a spoon," was a perfectionist when it came to performing, not wanting to disappoint others. She spent her childhood getting behind-the-scenes experiences at performances worldwide, never fully appreciating the rarity and richness of the experience until later. Instead, she saw the teacher of other lessons in life, including his unusual example of not judging others by their appearance.

"He was the musician, but I didn't see him as the legend that everybody else did," she says. "I saw the man who let me stay up later half an hour later than my mom wanted, give me an extra chocolate or cookie for dessert, tease me endlessly about anything and everything and, like I said, dress up in my clothes and shoes."

Jean hails his accomplishments on a far greater scale, saying his tolerance and humanitarian work with disadvantaged youths and artists is the kind of inspiration needed in a world dominated by poverty and ethnic and religious warfare.

"This is why i am convinced that the world should follow Oscar Peterson by saying 'yes' to humanity and a resounding 'no' to social exclusion and apathy," she says. "For we must learn to see beyond our differences and embrace the values and aims we have in common...And I am excited to see a new generation of artists are following his lead."

Testimonials to Peterson's musical legacy are plentiful. Jones describes Peterson's technique as "playing gunpowder with sugar." Steve Wonder, who sent a three-minute video because he was unable to attend, calls Peterson the "best pianist in the world... you could hear it sing and dance."

The music leads off with a seven-minute performance by Peterson and his band during a 1985 concert in Berlin. Following Jean's speech is a seriously up-tempo medley by a quartet of Peterson collaborators (drummer Jeff Hamilton, guitarist Ulf Wakenius, bassist Dave Young and pianist Monty Alexander). Hancock, who arrived on a red-eye flight and departed the same day, plays an abstract and sparsely meditative composition Peterson wrote for his daughter (one Canadian newspaper calls it an Impressionist interpretation of "Maiden Voyage"—hopefully their mistake, not mine). Among several tribute songs are Nancy Wilson singing Gordon Jenkins' "Goodbye" and Alexander playing a solo rendition of "Sweet Lady." The finale and possibly the highlight is vocalist Measha Brueggergosman leading the jazz quartet and a choir in an arrangement of "Hymn To Freedom," considered by some to be Peterson's most spiritual work.

The high-flowing emotions add depth and sincerity to all of the performances—making it a real tribute instead of one where things feel too forced and ceremonial, which is a bummer to critique diplomatically. The audio is commendable for a radio broadcast, especially given some of Canada's Web accessibility requirements, with the quality and size of the WAV files roughly equal to a standard 128kbs MP3.

Downloading the concert is a two-step process per song. First click the "play" link for a track, which open a small pop-up window with an audio player that will load the track. Once loading is complete, click and hold on the down arrowhead at the far right of the Quicktime playback bar and select "Save As Quicktime Movie." The resulting track should play in almost any audio program for Windows and Mac computers., and is easily convertible to MP3 format. Those with broadband who don't mind streaming audio can go for the easier "play all tracks" option.

Links to several CBC interviews with Peterson, articles and historical information are available at the site. There's also six other archived concerts including the traditional Indian classical group SaPaSa, a tribute to Aretha Franklin by Dionne Taylor, a 10th anniversary performance by the landmark R&B band Soulstream, indie rock bands 54º40 ("the Canadian REM") and The Acorn, and country artist Paul Brandt.

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