I was never a big Oscar Peterson fan. Too many notes, and his explosive treatment and scale runs made every song sound too much the same. Even on ballads, Peterson's enormous energy level felt twitchy and raring to go, like a champion thoroughbred being asked to hold still.
Technically amazing, Peterson in a trio setting was for me often overpowering. He could play the impossible but lacked a certain soul that connects with your heart.
Peterson was a pianist who sounded best accompanying others. As Verve Records' house pianist in the 1950s, he played behind all of the greats signed to the label by producer Norman Granz, and most of those recordings for my money represent his finest work. I haven't taken a count, but I would guess that Peterson holds a record for pianist with most sides recorded as an accompanist and leader (with the exception of Duke Ellington, of course).
Born with a gift, Peterson was certainly overworked during his lifetime. As the Ironman of Jazz, Peterson was called upon relentlessly to produce pianistic fireworks, and he delivered. But I'm guessing that the work pace and demand for his signature style left little him with time or space for self-reflection. The result is that many of his recordings lack an emotional quality, a depth or sadness. So much of his catalog sounds mechanical.
There are a few exceptions. One is Prelude to a Kiss, recorded with Barney Kessel and Ray Brown in December 1952. It's my favorite Oscar Peterson track, and it's how I'd like to remember him. On this recording, the powerful player rolls in the muscle and is all tenderness. I can't think of a better instrumental interpretation of this Ellington song. I only wish there were hundreds more like it.
Rather than go on about Peterson or Prelude to a Kiss, go to iTunes and download the track. It's on Oscar Peterson's The Song Is You: Best of the Verve Songbooks. I guarantee you'll listen to it over and over again. And I'm certain it's how you'll remember Oscar, too.