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Goodbye, O.P.: Oscar Peterson, 1925-2007

Sad Christmas Eve news that a number of jazz fans have probably heard by now: Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson has passed away at the age of 82. He was, as Doug Ramsey observes, "one of the great piano figures of his time... an inspiration to virtually every jazz pianist who followed him, his influence equaled only by his slightly younger contemporary Bill Evans." A mainstay of Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic tours, an early devotee of Art Tatum and Nat King Cole who found his own voice of swing, soul, and sophistication, a presence on the jazz-piano scene befitting his bearishly-big body, projecting both strength and gentility, Peterson was perhaps easy to take for granted-a bit like living for many years in view of a beautiful mountain or ocean-front.

Among jazz aficionados, it's been hip for many years to put down Peterson's playing, and he did indeed seem to often engage in virtuosic pyrotechnics that struck some as overly mechanical. The ensuing implication, however-that Peterson's playing lacked heart and soul-is, to put it politely, wrong. The man clearly loved performing, and his records and concerts brought joy to a wide swath of jazz listeners and listeners who liked "some jazz" in their music collection. (Part of the negative perception some have of Peterson may have stemmed from his prodigious output...somewhat akin to the perception of late-period Chet Baker, though their reasons for going into the studio so much were probably not quite the same.) Technical facility can surely overwhelm expression, but part of Peterson's appeal was his ability (thanks to that facility) to create a vast panorama on the keyboards, to summon all of the styles of jazz that had preceded him and stir them into something exciting and reflective of the post-World War II era from which he emerged. The "technical facilty" was, to my ears, just as often "jubilant ease," and therein lies much of his appeal.

Some of my favorite Peterson dates include The London House Sessions (apparently out-of-print, but there's a 3-CD version available), featuring the Ray Brown-Ed Thigpen version of Peterson's trio; the earlier trio, with guitarist Herb Ellis in Thigpen's place, on the classic At the Stratford Shakespearean Festival; and Peterson's take on Porgy and Bess (available as an MP3 Amazon download). These titles are some of Peterson's finest trio playing on record (admittedly, there's still a lot I haven't heard), with an exuberantly-wrought balance of talent and empathy-plus an occasional penchant for jivin' with the standards (see, or hear, rather, "On Green Dolphin Street" from the London House sessions). Peterson's sense of humor is another quality that tended to get lost in the conversations about whether or not his playing was too good, too showy, too much of whatever it was.

Some favorite dates with Peterson as a sideman or co-leader:

This one with Anita O'Day (who passed away around this time last year), Anita Sings the Most, a daredevil duel of sorts between singer and pianist that results in a swinging heat...

...another vocalist encounter (and once again in a Granz-assembled musical configuration) with Fred Astaire for which O.P. suits up elegantly...

... this all-star quintet date with Lionel Hampton (two albums on one CD) that showcases the dynamic musical affinity Hampton and O.P. had for each other...

...and a friend drew my attention back to this 1959 encounter with tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, which captures Peterson playing with graceful restraint and turning in some beautiful ballad work alongside The Brute.

Other frequently-cited Peterson CDs of note include Night Train and We Get Requests. For later Oscar, check out the this Pablo collection or its smaller sibling, which also encompasses some late-late Peterson from the TelArc era. Undoubtedly the jazz blogosphere will be rife with further tributes and listening suggestions in the next day or two, and I'll try to pass them along on this site. RIP, O.P., and here's hoping the next generation of pianists will carry on the swing in new and inventive ways... and with the same kind of love that you brought to what you did:

"Oscar Peterson redefined swing for modern jazz pianists for the latter half of the 20th century up until today. I consider him the major influence that formed my roots in jazz piano playing. He mastered the balance between technique, hard blues grooving, and tenderness. You'll find Oscar Peterson's influence in the generations that came after him. No one will ever be able to take his place."- Herbie Hancock

Thanks so much, Oscar.

(Photo by Tom Marcello)

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