Pianist Oscar Peterson has always been something of an enigma. Some listeners categorize him as a commercial overachiever whose flawless technique and perfectionism rendered him ponderous and dull. Others believe him to be Art Tatum's heir who produced a spectacular catalog of lyrical masterpieces. I tend to believe that neither view is quite accurate and that Peterson must be evaluated differently than most jazz artists to arrive at a proper assessment.
Like most jazz greats who had prolific recording careers, Peterson can't be sized up in one or two sweeping sentences. What I mean here is that you really can't say broadly that you like Peterson or you don't like him. I believe you have to refer to specific periods in the pianist's career. You have to break his recording time line into manageable and meaningful parts and then analyze them individually. The same is true, of course, for Lester Young [pictured], Billie Holiday and Miles Davis. These artists had periods of explosive growth during which they explored new ways to interpret songs based on what they had learned and where they wanted to go. During some of these periods we find them pushing into new territory and in others they seem to be creatively stalled.
What this means is that you can't dismiss Peterson simply because you don't care for his post-1960 period. To be sure, during those years he adapted a cookie-cutter approach to his playing and interpretations. His formula was to open with a solo ballad variation, follow with a snappy medium tempo run-though of the song's theme, and escalate to wild improvisation with centipede-like arpeggios and thumb runs along the keyboard. Certainly his record producers are partly to blame for the robotic approach.
The sameness that set in after 1960 also is likely a result of Peterson's marathon playing-and-recording schedule as a soloist and sideman starting in the mid-1950s. It's easy to overlook how the relentless pace of Granz's songbook sausage factory could sap a good part of Peterson's original creative spirit and joy. Or at least it sure sounded that way on Peterson's post-1960 recordings.
Which brings me back to my original premise. If you look at Peterson's career carefully, you will see that his truly golden era ran from 1945 to 1953, and that this period divides neatly into four distinct recording chapters: the Canadian years (1945-1949, Victor), the Carnegie Hall concerts (1949 and 1953), the duo dates (1950-1951, Clef), and his trio recordings (1951-1953, Clef/Mercury).
During this eight-year period, Peterson developed a technique that blended swing and bop, took impossible risks on the keyboard, and applied a tough tenderness to songs that teased out every bit of beauty. He fully grasped the melodic poetry of what he was playing and set the bar much higher for all trio pianists who followed. Surely Erroll Garner's first recording of Misty for Mercury Records (Peterson's label) is a direct response to the popularity Peterson was enjoying with a lush jazz approach.
The proof is in the playing. Mosaic Records has just released a set that captures Peterson at the high point of his career: The Complete Clef/Mercury Studio Recordings of the Oscar Peterson Trio (1951-1953). (You'll find it here.) This set truly is one fabulous box of ear candy. Each track offers a surprise, and you come away with a refreshed appreciation of Peterson the player and improvisational architect. Many of the sides appeared on Mercury, since Norman Granz had a partnership with the label at the time.
The 126 tracks on the Mosaic box are largely about standards, but the collection includes plenty of blues and some originals. There also are tracks that positioned Peterson as Nat King Cole, both as a player and a singer. Peterson's round, honey-dipped voice sounded remarkably close to Nat's, and the trio was positioned to fill a void left when Nat decided to disband his own trio to become a solo pop act. At first your ear rejects Peterson's voice as a cheap imitation, but eventually you recognize the difference and start to enjoy Peterson's vocal approach. [Photo: Esther Bubley Archive]
From the 1951 period, we have Peterson's It's Easy to Remember, with block chords and playful interchanges with bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Barney Kessel. There's also I Can't Get Started, which is perhaps one of the finest jazz trio renditions of this tune. And the 13-minute Tea for Two definitively proves that Peterson had no real rival on the piano scene. Tatum and Garner were different players of another age. By 1952 Peterson was delivering perfectly executed renditions of songs like Isn't This a Lovely Day and I Was Doin' Alright. The 1953 dates include the rollicking Pompton Turnpike, The Things We Did Last Summer and Without a Song. Peterson here is on top of his game and your soul rushes to greet each of them after the first few notes are played. Whatever standards you favor are likely on this expansive set and are executed with impeccable grace and daring.
What you hear on this box's seven remastered CDs is vintage Peterson. The more you listen, the more you realize that Peterson wasn't Art Tatum's heir. He was a pianist who skillfully finished what Bud Powell had started on his lush January 1947 session for Roost Records. In the process, Peterson checked George Shearing's stampeding popularity. As you'll hear, Peterson managed to take Bud's approach to new levels and replicated the largeness of the Shearing quintet with just a trio. On tracks that include Barney Kessel, you also will hear the guitarist inventing a twangy blues sound that soon would be emulated by country artists recording for Sam Phillips' Sun Records.
The Mosaic box's liner notes by John McDonough are thorough and revealing, and the photos courtesy of Hank O'Neal and Chiaroscuro Records and the Esther Bubley Archive are intimate and personal. According to Mosaic, Hank acquired the photographs of the Peterson Trio back in 1952, and the rare images have never before been published.
As you listen to this set, you instantly realize that if Peterson had recorded only these dates, his mark would have been significant. This box represents Peterson at his artistic best, after his style was established and before he struck a Faustian bargain with Norman Granz [pictured] in the mid-1950s to became Verve's house pianist and one of jazz's great workaholics.
JazzWax tracks: Fortunately, there are quality recordings documenting each chapter in Peterson's early golden period:
Chapter 1: Peterson's Victor period in Canada (1945-1949) can be found on a double-CD set from Proper called Oscar Peterson: Genesis. You'll find it here for under $10.
Chapter 2: Peterson's four Carnegie Hall appearances (1949-1953) still stun and can be found on Portrait of a Legend: Oscar Peterson Historic Carnegie Hall Concerts. It includes the famed September 1949 "debut" concert, for which Peterson had to sit in the audience and feign being a spectator until he was announced by a mock-surprised Norman Granz. The charade allowed the Canadian-born Peterson to come down to New York and perform without trouble from immigration. You'll find the CD here for about $20.
Chapter 3: The duo recordings of Peterson and bassist Ray Brown (1950-1951) are incomparable and sadly out of print. You can find them on The Duo: The Historic Early Studio Sessions of Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown here used from sellers starting at $40. I'm sure I'll hear from readers who have a more affordable way to obtain these, and when I do I'll pass along their advice.
Chapter 4: The Oscar Peterson Trio sessions (and quartets with Barney Kessel) are on Mosaic Records' The Complete Clef/Mercury Studio Recordings of the Oscar Peterson Trio (1951-1953) for $119. The box is well worth the price given the scope, hours of pleasure and crisp warm sound of the remastering. You'll find it here.