OSCAR PETERSON: EXCLUSIVELY FOR MY FRIENDS / PORTER: At Long Last Love*$. TAYLOR: Easy Walker*$. DAMERON: Tin Tin Deo*$. G & I GERSHWIN: I’ve Got a Crush on You*$. A Foggy Day*$. Our Love is Here to Stay. Someone to Watch Over Me. VAN HEUSEN-BURKE: Like Someone in Love*$. LERNER-LANE: On a Clear Day#. McHUGH-FIELDS: I’m in the Mood for Love#@. HEFTI-TROUP: Girl Talk#+. Medley: PORTER: I Concentrate on You/MANCINI: Moon River*@. JACQUET-THOMPSON: Robbins Nest. Medley: BROWN-WAYNE: Waltzing is Hip#+/ ELLINGTON: Satin Doll#+. In a Mellotone. PETERSON: Sandy’s Blues. Noreen’s Nocturne. FAIN-HILLIARD: Alice in Wonderland. TIZOL: Perdido. GREEN-HEYMAN-SOUR: Body and Soul. NEWLEY-BRICUSSE: Who Can I Turn To? (1st vers, 2nd vers#+). HENDERSON-DIXON: Bye Bye Blackbird. STORDAHL-WESTON-CAHN: I Should Care. WARREN-DUBIN: Lulu’s Back in Town. RODGERS-HART: Little Girl Blue. STRAYHORN: Take the “A” Train. SILVER: Nica’s Dream#+. KAPER-WASHINGTON: On Green Dolphin Street#+. GERSHWIN-HEYWARD: Summertime#+. YOUMANS-CAESAR: Sometimes I’m Happy#+. TRADITIONAL: Travelin’ On#+. MANDEL-MERCER: Emily#+. JOBIM-LEES: Corcovado [Quiet Nights and Quiet Stars] #+. BOLAND: Sax No End#+. CARTER-WILLIAMS: When Lights are Low#+ / Oscar Peterson, pn; *Ray Brown, #Sam Jones, bs; +Bobby Durham, $Ed Thigpen, @Louis Hayes, dm. / MPS 0209478MSW. Available at Amazon as 4 CDs or 6 LPs, or at Presto Classical as mp3 downloads only
When the legendary Art Tatum died on November 5, 1956 at the still-young age of 47, a great void was left in the jazz world. Who on earth could possibly take his place as the king of the piano? Who else had not only his technique but also his extraordinarily facile mind of fractioning rhythm and taking the listener on a tour of all 12 keys in the course of a single tune?
It’s sad to say that Earl Hines, then playing gigs at roller rinks and struggling to make a living, had yet to re-establish himself as jazz’s premiere pianist, and sadder still to think that Tatum’s most believed protégé, Dorothy Donegan (see my tribute to her here), was toiling in near-obscurity. Thus, of those high in the public eye, the mantle seemed to fall on the shoulders of Canadian-born pianist Oscar Peterson, 16 years Tatum’s junior, who had been playing in America since at least 1949 when Norman Granz signed him for a tour.
To his credit, Peterson never considered himself in the same league with Tatum. His first exposure to his playing, the 1933 recording of Tiger Rag, so disheartened and depressed him that he didn’t touch the piano for two weeks, and often told friends, “Tatum scared me to death and I was never cocky again.” Excellent as he was, Peterson lived in a different harmonic world from the multi-faceted Tatum; his inspirations were the classical music of Franz Liszt and Sergei Rachmaninov (he even studied with Paul de Marky, whose own teacher was István Thomán who had studied with Liszt), and he was quite happy to stay there, mixing in their harmonic world with the rhythms of jazz and occasionally the blues. Thus Peterson continued to go on his merry way, didn’t try to fill Tatum’s shoes, and left that gap open for Hines to fill starting in the early 1960s until his own death in 1983.
A great many jazz listeners and critics, including myself, tended to enjoy Peterson most when he was in the company of outstanding partners such as Dizzy Gillespie or Stan Getz, but German record producer Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, a close friend of Peterson’s, was anxious to record him in a more relaxed and informal setting than he usually had. Since Oscar was under contract to Verve, he couldn’t be recorded in a studio or in a concert setting, but Brunner-Schwer got around this by setting up stereo tape machines in his living room and inviting a dozen or so close friends over to hear Oscar play.
And play he did. These recordings, originally issued as separate LPs by Brunner-Schwer’s MPS label from 1968 to the late 1970s, were later collected into a boxed set in 1992 with the title you see above. The original LP titles were Action, Girl Talk, The Way I Really Play, Travelin’ On and My Favorite Instrument. With the addition of a few extra takes not originally released, Brunner-Schwer was able to make this a 6-LP or a 4-CD set, and that is how it has been reissued here. Since I reviewed the recordings from downloads, I don’t know if the original 24-page booklet is included if you purchase the MP3 or LP sets, but of course it’s not included at all if you buy it as digital downloads from Presto Classical.
In such a relaxed setting, Peterson was able to let himself relax, playing almost as if for himself. As a result, there is less of the “showman” type performances that dominated his concerts and studio recordings. He is far more inventive rhythmically, a prime example being the way he plays Duke Ellington’s Satin Doll constantly behind the beat or the dazzling, uptempo romp he makes of the usually moribund On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, and even harmonically there are a few Tatum-esque touches here and there that let you know that he knew how to do it but just didn’t have the inspiration to do so on a continual basis. One of the things I found most interesting about these performances was how much more often he included the blues, something he did only rarely in most of his concerts.
Another reason for his comfort are the rhythm sections, which include well-known compatriots with whom he was entirely at ease, among them his long-time bassist of the 1950s, Ray Brown. Granted, he won’t efface your memories of Tatum, Donegan or Hines, but this is as good as Oscar Peterson ever got. It’s almost as if you’re hearing him woodshed at home, completely relaxed and not trying to impress anyone, and the results are much more artistic than was normal for him. Happily, Brunner-Schwer was a master audio technician, thus he captured Peterson and his colleagues in absolutely superb sound. For those wondering about the nine tracks listed above that have no bassist or drummer listed, these were piano solos first issued as My Favorite Instrument.
No matter where you test him in this magnificent series of recordings, however, you will rarely be disappointed. For the most part Peterson is just having so much fun playing that it becomes infectious. Aside from On a Clear Day, the one track I particularly commend to your listening is one of his own compositions, Sandy’s Blues (originally part of The Way I Really Play). Oscar is so completely wrapped up in this piece that it’s almost like he didn’t want to come up for air. He’s locked in and doesn’t even relax the tempo until about the seven-and-a-half-minute mark, and when he does he schools you in some truly beautiful blues piano.
This is clearly some of Oscar Peterson’s best playing. If you just get the Tatum comparison out of your mind, I think you’ll find it one of the most spectacular and enjoyable musical rides you will ever take.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley