Oscar Peterson, Roy Brown, Milt Jackson: What’s Up?: The Very Tall Band

[29 May 2007]

By Robert R. Calder

Nine years back, Ray Brown was in his prime, and Milt Jackson relaxed and perpetually swinging. Oscar Peterson had been out for about half of the preceding six years due to a stroke, and there was the baby of the band, Kariem Riggins, sparky and spritely on drums. They played a gig at the Blue Note in New York City, and a CD came out some years ago, the band named for the first Peterson-Jackson-Brown album—minus the drummer, the band which played on Very Tall. (The drummer on that first session was Ed Thigpen, and last year a friend of mine attended the launch of a new CD under his leadership in his longtime home, Copenhagen.)

Since 1998, Jackson has left us, and Brown too, but the CD which came out a few years back wasn’t the last one by this band. Enough music was taped for another, and here it is, adding to the number of Jackson-Brown-Peterson CDs to choose between, not to mention the recommendable, far less the overheavy Peterson recordings. This isn’t one just for those enthusiasts whose incomes and houses are big enough to have let them buy all his recordings.

The opener generates a commendation. Johnny Hodges’s “Squaty Roo” is well worth hearing, even though its first recording is pretty well unsurpassable, and not merely as a performance of this delight of a theme. That was performed within the three minute limit of a 78rpm record, where this is a jam performance on which everybody works out everything he could be expected to produce using the melody—very satisfyingly to a relaxed conclusion. When only the chords are left, the theme is resumed, and these guys have given all they had.

My first impression on hearing that track was of a Lionel Hampton performance, absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Jackson and Hampton both played vibes. Each of them had a different conception of the instrument, and the Hampton-like aspect of the performance is in the swing and rhythm.  It’s very interesting to hear the more melodic and less overtly rhythmic approach of Jackson in that setting.

The stroke didn’t deprive Peterson of a useful left hand, allowing for the intensive work he needed to do to get back. It compelled him, certainly here, to adopt an approach without benefit of the oomph continuously there from the first recordings he made 49 years before this gig. On the overheavy recordings which have sometimes given him a bad name, between the brilliant live radio recording and the four-CD set with Brown, Herb Ellis, and Bobby Durham immediately before his stroke, it was the oomph and the proliferation of notes which drowned the swing. It was all too easy.

Here, it’s all nicely relaxed, with a singular feature in Brown’s power-playing on bass. He came out of the miraculous transformation of bass-playing worked by Jimmy Blanton in a career hideously shortened by TB and death. Here, Brown shows that more than fifty years after Blanton, he could deliver on bass with some of the qualities which commend traditional heavyweight boxers.  Peterson’s zest is plain, swinging with the right hand, playing long and winding lines with the air of a challenge to anybody around. Jackson relaxes into an equal swing.

Other than “Squaty Roo”, there’s little sense of trying to produce performances whose merit is as specially connected to whichever number is being played, whether “Soft Winds” or anything else. It’s not that sort of performance, just a nice appreciation of whichever tune or song, but instead mainly the informality of even an after hours get together. The recording is good, and the applause an enhancement, everybody feeling good, Riggins just what the veterans wanted. Not a masterpiece, but a warm example of something which should continue, and continue.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/oscar-peterson-roy-brown-milt-jackson-whats-up-the-very-tall-band/