The Jazz.com Blog
December 24, 2007 · 3 comments
With the passing of Oscar Peterson, we have lost one of the last representatives of the great post-war generation of pianists who redefined the role of the keyboard in jazz music. We will almost certainly never again see such a concentration of creativity and individuality as the jazz world experienced during the late 1940s and 1950s when most fans first heard the music of Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Erroll Garner, Bill Evans, Lennie Tristano, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, Ahmad Jamal, Dave Brubeck, and George Shearing. Most of these pianists are now gone. We will need to be content with appreciating their artistry through recordings and the occasional surviving video -- and in our cherished memories of seeing them perform in person.
Oscar Peterson was perhaps the easiest of these musicians to appreciate. His strong sense of swing and virtuoso technique could even move listeners who had little appreciation of the jazz idiom. The virtues of his work were so striking and obvious that it is something of a puzzle how otherwise astute critics could so easily ignore them. Miles Davis, in a famous put-down, once commented that Peterson sounded as if he had to learn how to play the blues. The late Martin Williams – one of the most astute critics ever to write about jazz – dismissed Peterson’s work as a “stockpile of clichés . . . He seems to know every stock riff and lick in the history of jazz.” For both Davis and Williams, the sheer abundance of Peterson’s work, the dramatic and rapid-fire manner he tossed off melodic ideas, somehow made him suspect. Peterson was the improvisatory equivalent of a fire hose, and these critics wanted a small bottle of Evian water.
But there is a place in every art form for fireworks and bravura gestures. Peterson was the most dramatic pianist of his generation, and to see him at top form was an exhilarating experience. I recall guitarist Joe Pass (a great virtuoso in his own right) once noting that if you wanted to play fast with Oscar, he could play fast; and if you wanted to go faster, Oscar could go faster -- Pass shaking his head at this point, like the fan at a NASCAR event who has just seen some death-defying move on the track. To play fast and clean and true is a litmus test for jazz musicians. It always has been and always will be. And among jazz players of his era, no one played faster or cleaner or truer than Oscar Peterson.
Here are some of my favorite Oscar Peterson moments: his driving two-hand boogie work on “Blues Etude”; a surprisingly restrained and introspective solo version of Ellington’s “Lady of the Lavender Mist” from an early Pablo release; his duets with Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge and several other trumpeters from this same period; his sensitive contributions as an accompanist on a number of classic Verve recordings; his underrated Nat-King-Cole-ish vocal work; and his various collaborations with the great Joe Pass. If you haven’t heard the latter combination in a while, check out this clip of Peterson and Pass playing “My One and Only Love.”
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia
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