Monday, February 15, 2010

Oscar Peterson: The Gentle Giant Of Jazz

Oscar Peterson (piano; b. 1925 - d. 2007)

Considered by many to be one of the greatest jazz pianists ever, the Canadian born Oscar Peterson deployed an highly enjoyable, inventive and improvisational style that captured the hearts of audiences for a half century. You can put Peterson in the same category as Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans and Art Tatum as the true legends and innovators of jazz piano. Just as Gillespie's and Armstrong's gregarious style entertained audiences on record and in concert, Peterson demonstrated his style's similar panache and great dexterity. Peterson's legacy might touch more younger pianists than we will ever know (artists such as Benny Green, Diana Krall, Gerald Clayton and Cyrus Chestnut).

The legacy is solidified through the treasure trove of material that is available. And while that is fun for some of us jazz fanatics to global trot in search of as much as we can, some of you may just want the basics. Let me first say you probably wouldn't go wrong with any Oscar Peterson record. His ability was greatly influenced by Art Tatum and Nat Cole but he really gained significant recognition after a performance at the legendary Carnegie Hall in 1949. This led to a long career with Verve Records and hundreds of recordings including classic trio sessions with Ray Brown (bass) and Ed Thigpin (drums) as well some outstanding solo dates.

And while Peterson did record for a number of other labels, the bulk of the best known dates were for Verve and MPS (out of Germany). Peterson was not only an incredible performer but he was also an astounding composer, the latter of which seems to not be discussed that often. Many in the jazz circles have decried that Oscar Peterson was just an interpreter of recordings and not an innovator. I highly disagree with this assumption. While I missed my one and what would turn out to be the last opportunity to see Oscar Peterson in 2007, I'm sure I would have seen the magnificent beauty of a Peterson live show, but I would have also witnessed the immaculate dedication to his writing and the precision of his technique.

In addition to the aforementioned trio sessions, Peterson also recorded lovely dates with trumpeter Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Stan Getz, and a few years prior to his passing, Benny Green - an artist I think holds the mantle high for Peterson. If you have been interested in Oscar Peterson and didn't know where to start I would highly suggest an import compilation entitled Piano Moods: The Definite Oscar Peterson (Universal). Piano Moods covers great material on Verve and MPS from '59 - '71 and includes a nice selection of trio, quartet and solo performances. Another good compilation is The Song Is For You (Verve) which covers a large portion of the American Songbook (Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and more)--very enjoyable.

And lastly, the one compilation that might be the easiest to find is Perfect Peterson: The Best Of The Pablo and Telarc Years. Perfect Peterson condenses things to the sum of the most important tracks but also covers the label material after Verve. This could be a complete overview but I think by picking up all three (there's very little overlap) you do get the full picture of an artist who was also in command. Oscar Peterson is definitely one the pillars of jazz and you really should check him out if you ever get the chance.

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