[9 May 2012]
Though there is substantial breadth to the membership of jazz royalty, I always feel like certain members get overlooked. Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Art Tatum get name-dropped like no other, but it’s often the lesser-known titles that represent some of jazz’s finest musicianship. Ever since hearing his seminal recording Night Train, Oscar Peterson (the Maharaja of the piano) has remained my favorite jazz musician.
Admittedly, it’s hard to choose just one jazz composer to label as “favorite”: each one has the ability to scratch a particular musical itch I have at a given time. My crazy prog nerd self craves Miles Davis quite often, and when I look for unique takes on jazz piano I look to contemporary maestros like Brad Mehldau or Vijay Iyer. Yet through whatever jazz mood I may be in,Peterson always hits the spot just right. Unfortunately, if I were to ask someone who the Maharaja of jazz royalty is, he would unlikely come up with an answer.
Unsurprisingly, since Peterson’s death in 2007, there has been a wealth of re-releases of his material. Many of these releases give a snapshot of highly overlooked performances of the man, whose prolific nature makes it hard to isolate his finest works. One such release is Arthaus Musik’s DVD recording of Peterson’s 1984 recording Easter Suite, written for the piano trio, no doubt where Peterson’s mastery is most evident. For this performance, Peterson plays with Niels-Henning Ørstedt Pedersen (upright bass) and Martin Drew (drums), who match Peterson’s command of the ivories with appropriate aplomb. All three musicians are at the top of their game in this recording, which nevertheless remains a very intimate and approachable watch, balancing virtuosity with a welcoming air.
For this reason, Easter Suite Jazz is a highly inspired piece of music, and a fantastic representation of Peterson’s command of music for the jazz trio. Much music has been written about the Crucifixion of Jesus, but Peterson puts a wholly unique spin on it with his brand of jazz. In the suite’s nine movements, the trio grooves effortlessly between jaunty (“Denial”) to smooth (highlight movement “The Trial”) and joyous (“He Has Risen”, which should from now on be an essential Easter track). Just as he always has, Peterson here emulates all of the essential traits of jazz: powerful musicianship, restraint, and that ever-important element of improvisation.
But despite the brilliance of the music, the standalone DVD release of this recording seems largely unnecessary. A better option would have been to release a CD/DVD set, since watching the performance doesn’t add terribly much to the music. At times it’s incredible to watch how effortlessly these musicians play difficult solos, or how Peterson manages to hop between broad and at times awkward chord patterns without breaking a sweat. On the whole, however, the music can be enjoyed without actually watching the performance. At 30 minutes, it flies by fairly fast (due in large part to how great the music is), and given the DVD’s $20 price tag it’s definitely an instance of a lot of money for little product. The album’s PBS-worthy cinemaphotography doesn’t help much, either.
The only bonus feature, meanwhile, is a 15-minute interview with the trio, which covers the impetus for the performance as well as the various techniques used to evoke the various scenes in the Easter story. Peterson’s comments are enlightening here, but again, this commentary could have been put on a CD with no loss of quality, allowing for a more portable way to listen to his explanations. There’s certainly a value to watching someone in visual form describe things, but here it isn’t necessary to understand what Peterson is talking about, so only audio would have served just as well.
Easter Suite Jazz, then, is something definitely worth owning for die-hard fans of Peterson, or those looking for an excellent spin on Easter music. But for those up-to-date on Peterson’s oeuvre (there is an MP3 version of this recording out there), this is for the most part a perfunctory release that is definitely worth less than the asking price. This doesn’t come off as a cheap way to make money off of Peterson’s incredibly legacy; rather, it’s a redundancy, albeit one that is a resounding testament to Peterson’s continued importance in jazz history.