The Oscar Peterson Trio: Vancouver 1958, with Herb Ellis and Ray Brown

Robert R. Calder

The Oscar Peterson Trio

Vancouver 1958, with Herb Ellis and Ray Brown

Label: Justin Time
US Release Date: 2003-09-19
UK Release Date: Available as import

Not every Oscar Peterson issue is of the best, but this trio performance is of the very best. Triple peaks, and I know why nobody plays quite this well -- that's just in the nature of things. Some people ought to try, not to play better than they can, but to for instance programme as well as this set's programmed; and having programmed the selection of compositions programme variety in performances, for instance who plays when and how this or that part of a performance is played. There are a lot of respects in which this set could be emulated, just by musicians thinking a little more. Ensemble theme followed by a sequence of solos followed by reprise of theme with coda, well, that's very predictable beside all this.

The notes have one of the crackers among jazz stories. One guy saw, Peterson and Brown arrive at a gig asked, "Where's the rest of the band?"

Pause to let the thought sink in.

Peterson didn't need to become so physically huge as he became to make that seem one dumm question. Actually several asked, which was why they (they were a duo and this is a trio, not Peterson with minions) brought in first Barney Kessel, a great guitarist these days having benefits played for him everywhere, and later, as his successor, they incorporated Herb Ellis.

This set was recorded near the end of Herb Ellis's time with these, his two peers. This connection is a relatively short miracle, so that advantages of playing live combined with those of having been together long enough while still being fresh in the relationship (and both senses of fresh apply!).

Three young men jamming for joy! Three young men absolute masters of their instruments, on a touring routine they don't seem to have allowed to get them down. Each of them can read the others. They may have rehearsed together, but routine on occasions like this one seems to have been confined to turning up and having tuned up. A better togetherness was always in mind, and a more interesting interaction challenges.

"How High the Moon" is beyond category. Oscar Peterson is announced amid applause and proceeds through some high speed left hand rumbling into a bit of locked hands playing wild as Milt Buckner, the style's deviser, all the time prompting rapid pulsing responses from what seems an unusually lighter-toned Ray Brown (staying out of the way of Peterson's deadly left ...?). Peterson then moves quietly along.

The long delicate bass solo opens with some piano accompaniment where Peterson's timing of phrase would make the average major pianist scream in anguish. He and Peterson combine with their other musical ambitions an investigation of how quietly it's possible to play while still swinging. Possible, for them. The drop of a pin would have been a clap of thunder, but they emerge fragrant and in comes Peterson with some Ellingtonian left-hand clunks at the bottom end of the piano, and into a solo which got me wondering how far the great shifting swathes of notes which scare all pianists (beware of imitators, nobody else ever did this!) are really representations of the internal harmonics of a vast tenor saxophone sound.

If bebop pianists developed the right hand to play lines like Charlie Parker's alto, and Coleman Hawkins laid foundations for Illinois Jacquet and Ike Quebec by trying to match the harmonic richness of Art Tatum's piano, why shouldn't Peterson use his virtuosity not for display but expression? I was reminded of Jacquet because here Peterson croaky-singing along is well miked (when Pablo Casals was told he could be heard singing on a record he suggested the company could duly charge extra for the disc) and he sounds vocally like Buckner. (Question: what did Jacquet do when his partner Buckner died? Answer (true!): he started a big band.)

"We'll Be Together Again" has a solo prelude after Ravel, a wake-up with Brown's bass bowed and Ellis making matching slithery noises, before some Peterson balladising. Then he and Ellis play counter-melodies together. Brown's bass picks up the tempo with no loss of character and Peterson solos over the top of Ellis's rhythm guitar and the bass. The track plays out, after another bout of Peterson playing the big tenor, in a little more impressionism.

Beginning with the full ensemble (so I just mentioned big bands!), "Joy Spring" (renamed here "Joyous Spring" quite in keeping with the evening's uplift) has an amazing wide dynamic range. One minute it's stomping, the next you know how very, very good the piano is because on lesser instruments notes struck that gently make no sound. The string wouldn't notice the hammer, but even on sensitive pianos of this class, strings do need persuading.

These are three masters of time, who knew how to wait. Suddenly, it's Herb Ellis on "Daahoud'', and Peterson gets to scintillate as accompanist.

We get the nice Peterson announcement that they're about to play a standard nobody realises is a standard, the Rogers and Hart "I Like to Recognise the Tune". Actually, I think it's "I Got Rhythm'', maybe Rodgers's joke (Peterson's heard announcing the tune as by Gershwin). Peterson plays a little lullaby of his own instead of any other intro to John Lewis's "The Golden Striker". There's the delicate beginning, a hint of stomp to come and suddenly it's the Fats Waller stride bit (the same stride passage later reappeared in "Canadiana Suite", although between the Ray Brown's pianissimo bass solo and that later recording a stride, strode and stridden climax has the audience awed into a burst of clapping before some amazing fast-fingered cross-rhythms -- which possibly made their jaws drop so low they couldn't clap around them. Wow!

Ellis takes his "Patricia" unaccompanied, and now and then there are echoes of Django Reinhardt and sometimes chords so full only Grappelli's missing from the whole Hot Club Quintet I still remember the Herb Ellis/Benny Carter tour. Ellis came on first with the trio and after a couple of numbers people were wondering what on earth even Benny Carter could add. It was said that during the interval a young lad was found weeping in a corner and when asked what was wrong he said, "I'm a guitarist". In "Patricia", Ellis takes his theme out of tempo as if he was just feeling his way around with the guitar, looking for ideas, but in his case they are never far away.

His command of dynamics -- duetting with Brown on "Pogo" ("Lester Leaps In"), he's boppish but one witty phrase skirts without entering cowboy country.

I've an awful feeling somebody might miss the metaphor cum joke of my saying that the "Music Box Suite" (a Bach joke) concludes with a guest appearance by Pablo Casals on cello (at the time looking exactly like Ray Brown playing a double bass) and Glenn Gould playing piano in his peculiar low-slung posture from a seat below Peterson's piano stool. The performance begins with more or less Bach, goes into I am not sure what though it has a name (the title here is a play on that!). Then we have Bach as the basis for the Nat Cole trio with even more fingers sort of thing, but swung.

At the end Messrs. Casals and, well, he doesn't sound like Glenn Gould even if there's some Segovia in his Ellis, return to Johann Sebastian -- in what the great English tenor player Danny Moss calls something like road safety mode. It puts enough peace into the souls of car-drivers they are less likely to have an accident going home from the gig. Shalom to that.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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