I've always found pianist Oscar Peterson to be most interesting when he is playing ballads. I have never been a big fan of Peterson's breakneck paced melody lines or centipedic runs. To me, they always sound frantic and overdone, jackhammering whatever beauty exists in the song being played.
Which is why I find Peterson most divine when he's serving as an accompanist rather than the leader on a recording date. I realize this opinion is controversial, since the Oscar Peterson Trio has many, many fans. Yet the more I re-listen to Peterson's late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s recordings, the more I become convinced that the pianist either lacked the sensitivity and patience needed to extract beauty from the many standards he played or he suffered from jazz fatigue. Surely a certain creative dullness had to have set in given Peterson's enormous number of recording dates and club appearances.
And for me, when Peterson is in a trio setting, he's most enjoyable when the pace of the song he's playing is somewhere between a slow crawl and a heart beat. At this tempo, Peterson is forced to restrain the tic-like arpeggios and focus instead on choosing tasteful chords to frame the melody.
Which brings me to my favorite Oscar Peterson album—Motions & Emotions. Recorded in 1969 for the German MPS/BASF label, the album paired the bluesy sound of Peterson's piano with the lush, sensitive charts of Claus Ogerman, the highly seductive German composer and arranger. In most places on this album, the merger of these two perfectionists is pure bliss—the audio equivalent of a quiet autumn rain.
But as Doug Payne points out in the liner notes from the re-mastered CD, the session nearly was aborted over a sub-par piano:
"[Claus] Ogerman no longer recalls who was inspired to team the two together: 'I assume that the impulse came from Oscar or [Peterson’s manager at the time] Norman Granz, who wanted me to work with other artists of his before.'
Whatever the genesis of the idea, it makes for a most provocative collaboration. Unlike the pianist’s previous 'with strings' records, there is no attempt on Motions & Emotions to cow-tow to the mere cliche of going for pretty or lush. Ogerman doesn’t 'cushion' with strings here so much as provide the pianist with effective counterpoint. Peterson, a force of nature on the piano, is not so easily cradled by other sounds. And Ogerman gives the pianist something inspiring to spring forth from with his own ideas, clearly in the jazz realm.
However, it almost didn’t come to be. 'The piano available at A&R Studios [the New York studio where the album was scheduled to be recorded],' Ogerman remembers, 'was not to Oscar’s liking.' Peterson refused to record on what he considered an inadequate piano, stating very simply, in his ever-inimitable way, 'I don’t like the box.'
Gene Lees further relates in his book, Oscar Peterson: The Will To Swing (Cooper Square Press, 1988): '[MPS Records owner Hans Georg] Brunner-Schwer faced a dilemma. He had committed substantial funds to this recording, including Ogerman’s arranging and conducting fees, the cost of A&R studio, and the salaries of the musicians who sat there waiting, and would be paid whether they played or not. He made a decision; to record the orchestra now and overdub Oscar’s part in Villingen [Germany] on the piano that Oscar liked. Oscar instantly agreed, the session proceeded, and he completed the album later in Villingen.”
All of the songs selected for the date are pop tunes, and most are taken at a leisurely pace. Even the sprite numbers—Sunny, Eleanor Rigby and Ode to Billy Joe—are tempered by Ogerman's charts, though more sensitive song choices would have made this superb album even better.
Interestingly, this date could have been (and, perhaps, should have been) an Oscar Peterson tribute to Henry Mancini, considering how spectacularly well Sally's Tomato comes together in the opening track. Sally's Tomato leaves you wondering how additional tracks from Breakfast at Tiffany's and selections from Two for the Road and other Mancini scores would have fared if they were given the Peterson-Ogerman treatment.
To be sure, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Wandering, This Guy's in Love With You, Wave, Dreamsville and Yesterday are plenty pretty and splendidly arranged.
The more I listen to Motions & Emotions, the more I realize that Peterson is along for Ogerman's ride, and he plays beautifully rather than perfectly, which is a glorious change.
Wax tracks: Motions & Emotions can be found here or at iTunes. It's a terrific CD to listen to on long drives or while working. The combination of Peterson's spirited piano and Ogerman's meringue arrangements is tart and soothing.
If you decide to buy the remastered CD (and you should), close your eyes when Sally's Tomato or Wave comes on and hear what makes Ogerman so precious and special.
Wax video clips: Here are two video clips that I think illustrate my point about Oscar Peterson as accompanist and soloist.
Go here to hear Peterson accompanying Nat King Cole and Coleman Hawkins on Sweet Lorraine. Delightful. Then go here to hear Peterson with his trio playing A Gal in Calico. Peterson runs roughshod over a perfectly fine song, ignoring the tune's beauty and natural pace, adding technical feat after technical feat until the song is no longer recognizable. The result is hurried and dull—at least to me.
There are no clips under Claus Ogerman's name. So I took a chance and viewed a clip from Diana Krall's 2001 tour. Ogerman arranged and conducted her Look of Love CD of the same year.
What a surprise: Not only does Krall introduce Ogerman to the audience, but he also comes out to conduct. Go here, and be sure to watch Ogerman's hands and fingers as he sets up and starts the orchestra. Just beautiful.
The more I watched and listened to this clip, the more I realized that the pair must have used Peterson's Motions & Emotions as the basis for their collaboration—jazz piano running around on top of a soft, knowing, suspenseful orchestral setting.