Forgive me for getting a little personal for a moment, but I cannot think of Oscar Peterson without also considering the night I saw Peterson and Herbie Hancock together in concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Each performer did his respective individual set before they joined each other, piano-to-piano, to play together. Hancock is a fine player, perhaps one of the best. But he sure looked out of his league matched against Peterson. Oscar simply blew him off the stage. It was as if an experienced teacher was showing his pupil how it’s done. Peterson was that good.
This new collection of older Pablo and Telarc recordings does not include any other pianists for Peterson to spar with. Instead, it is all Peterson at his best. These 22 selections span the years 1953 to 2000. The first CD is drawn from Pablo, a label that was owned and maintained by respected jazz supporter Norman Granz. Granz was also Peterson’s longtime manager. The second CD is taken from the approximate decade that Peterson spent on Telarc.
Peterson is often surrounded by great jazz players. For instance, guitarist Herb Ellis nearly steals the show during “Kelly’s Blues” on the Telarc disc. That disc is, for the most part, made up of trio sessions. The trio musicians are guitarists Ellis or Lorne Lofsky, and bassists Ray Brown or Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson. But there are cases, such as “In a Mellow Tone”, where Peterson is joined by saxophonist Benny Carter and flugelhorn player Clark Terry. Vibe master Milt Jackson also accompanies Peterson for “Ja-Da”. Many from this same cast of characters also appear on the Pablo disc. However Joe Pass, a Pablo label mate, also contributes to about half of the tracks there. And in some places it’s almost a solo Pass disc. Dizzy Gillespie also makes his bulging-cheek presence felt during “Caravan” and “If I Were a Bell”, and the great Count Basie participates in “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You)”.
There is a bevy of wonderful material here for Peterson to display his incomporable skills with. Six of the collection’s tracks are original compositions, but he also takes on Duke Ellington (“In a Mellow Tone”), Fats Waller (“Honeysuckle Rose”), and George and Ira Gershwin (“Summertime”). One track, “(Back Home Again In) Indiana”, makes its first ever CD appearance.
Peterson is such a masterful pianist, which he reinforces again and again. “Tenderly” opens with a nearly classical string of introductory notes. This brief section alone underlines Peterson’s artistic creativity and control. But “Caravan” is even more amazing. It’s as if Peterson is dueling to the death with trumpeter Gillespie, as each ace takes turns showing off his stuff. In the hands of Ellington’s big band, “Caravan” is a slow, mood-building piece of music. But with Peterson and Gillespie, it’s like a bebop, melodic jumping-off point: a good excuse for two pioneers to improvise together. The listener is left awestruck, wondering how Peterson in particular was able to create such an epic performance out of this tune’s otherwise simple melody. It is a full seven minutes of “how did he do that?”
Obviously, Peterson is most comfortable sitting at a piano. But he switches the mood greatly with “Summertime”, which finds him playing a duet with Pass on a clavichord. This instrument gives the tune’s familiar melody an eerie quality, which will make you listen to it in a completely new way.
Examples like this reveal how Peterson has no trouble being experimental. But he is equally at home just swinging. “If I Were A Bell” is a fine instance of Peterson letting his flying fingers explore a groove, where the rhythm does much of the talking. Bobby Durham’s lively drum fills are also particularly notable on this one.
Calling any collection of music perfect is a little presumptuous. But while no musician is perfect, Oscar Peterson comes mighty close to flawless. If nothing else, this brilliant 22-song sampling is perfectly Peterson, which is as near to perfection as anybody really needs to get.