Easy Listening as a genre has been unfairly maligned for years. Since the advent of rock in the late 1960s, the entire category has been disparaged as "elevator," "background" or "mall" music, depending on the decade. The assault has been so pronounced that the very term "Easy Listening" now is code for "artless music." But like all types of music, there's good Easy Listening and bad. The newly released Oscar Peterson & Nelson Riddle recorded for Verve in November 1963 is a perfect example of a great Easy Listening album that perfectly merged jazz piano of the highest order with the textured sound of one of America's most gifted arrangers.
Easy Listening—the fusing of jazz-pop sensibilities with classical's anti-anxiety powers—first emerged in 1945. At first the music was marketed to relax returning veterans and a war-weary public. With the rise of the laid-back suburbs in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Easy Listening records became the audio equivalent of a cocktail, positioned as music that could de-stress and alter moods.
The earliest Easy Listening albums were arranged and recorded by Paul Weston, and included Music for Dreaming, Music for Memories and Music for the Fireside. But certainly many of Claude Thornhill's chilled instrumental recordings of the 1940s also fit into this category.
Throughout the 1950s, demand for the peaceful genre picked up. Home record-changer consoles improved, the 12-inch LP became the standard format, and marketplace tastes shifted as aging listeners who didn't care for pure jazz, classical or early rock sought easy-going music that wasn't challenging or stressful.
Every so often an Easy Listening album would emerge that married tranquility with the brilliance of jazz arranging and playing. Fine examples in the 1950s included the Capitol releases of Bobby Hackett and Nat King Cole, and many of the unintentionally mainstream recordings by the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra.
In 1963, Oscar Peterson and Nelson Riddle also accomplished this feat. Though the pair didn't set out to create an Easy Listening LP, Oscar Peterson & Nelson Riddle certainly qualifies, and the result is magnificent. Mind you, this recording shouldn't be misjudged as an "Oscar with strings" date. It's a joining of two musical giants on a single, easy-going concept that gives each artist room to shine. No matter how many times I listen to the CD, I hear something different, especially with regard to the tender interactions between Peterson's piano and Riddle's supportive orchestrations.
Let me quote from Peter Levinson's September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle:
"The idea for Oscar Peterson & Nelson Riddle was conceived when Nelson came in one night to see the [Oscar Peterson] Trio perform at the London House [in Chicago] while he was on a Reprise Records promotion tour. He and Peterson discussed how their admiration for one another's work could result in the kind of album which would coordinate both of their musical concepts. Nelson believed that Peterson's pianistics could be presented in a setting not too far afield from the old Claude Thornhill band."
For the album, Nelson gave half the song's tracks a symphonic setting of 10 celli, 5 French horns, 5 flutes, a percussionist and a harpist. The balance of the album featured a swinging band with strings.
Writes Riddle in Arranged by Nelson Riddle:
"I used both the horns and flutes, and the horns and celli in my own instrumental albums... These combinations were very effective as a cushion for [Oscar's] remarkable piano sound, and we were both quite pleased with the results."
Rosemary Acerra, Riddle's daughter, recalls her father working on the album and talking about it during their drives along California's Pacific Coast Highway in 1963:
"I've always loved this album, and I know Dad truly enjoyed working directly with Oscar. We lived in Malibu at the time, and he used to drive me to high school on Sunset Blvd. on his way to the studio. I knew this album was something more intriguing to him than just feverishly pushing arrangements for vocalists or throwing together TV music. This album punctuated a very feverish time for him, and Dad truly respected Oscar as a wonderful musician."
The recording plays like a concept album in that you will find yourself listening to it from start to finish rather than jumping in on individual songs. 'Round Midnight is probably my favorite track. Given the vast number of dramatic interpretations of this Thelonious Monk classic over the years, hearing Peterson's keyboard runs with Riddle's yearning arrangement as a backdrop is gripping. And the inclusion of Gordon Jenkins' Goodbye on the album also made me realize for the first time that there are stark similarities between the song and 'Round Midnight.
Someday My Prince Will Come also offers a fine juxtaposition between Peterson's galloping keyboard style and Riddle's ever-shifting chart.
In Arranged by Nelson Riddle, Riddle says his own favorite was My Ship:
"[It] was played more slowly than most people would consider tasteful, but to my way of thinking, permitted Oscar to weave a spell the likes of which I've seldom heard even from him!"
In some respects, the recording has the musical personality of a Frank Sinatra ballad album thanks in large measure to Riddle's signature style. But instead of Sinatra's voice in front of Riddle, we hear Peterson on piano, performing instrumentally like a vocalist.
JazzWax tracks: Oscar Peterson & Nelson Riddle has long been out of print. It was re-mastered and re-issued by Verve in January as part of the label's Originals series. You'll find it as a download and CD at Amazon here, or at iTunes.
JazzWax clip: For an intimate look at Nelson Riddle, here's Part 1 of a comprehensive radio interview Jonathan Schwartz conducted with the famed arranger in 1982...