The farther back in time you go, the more glorious pianist Oscar Peterson sounds. Like sliding a bar to and fro on the computer screen to find just where the hues are richest in a digital image, the Oscar Peterson Story is perhaps sweetest between 1949 and 1951. During this period, Clef Records' producer Norman Granz paired the mighty Peterson with just a bass—Ray Brown or Major Holley. The resulting recordings remain unrivaled for their ferocious sensitivity and grace.
This observation takes nothing away from the impeccable Peterson quartet and trio sessions that followed for Granz between 1951 and 1953. Nor does it diminish Peterson's accompanist period for Verve or his expansive centipede trio era in the early 1960s and beyond. It's just that over the course of a long jazz career, there's bound to be a "just right" zone. For me, those eye-widening moments exist in the hungry duo years. [Photo of Oscar Peterson by Herman Leonard/CTSImages.com]For the longest time, these duo sessions were out of print in the U.S. Periodically they were bootlegged by European jazz labels. In response, jazz listeners have complained about American labels not releasing the bounty in their vaults. Well, Verve/Hip-O Select just re-issued these Peterson recordings on Debut: The Clef/Mercury Duo Recordings (1949-1951). It's a handsome set that warmly showcases all 49 recordings of the piano-bass pairing. To my ear, they have improved with age, if that's possible, revealing yet more secrets and delights.
As David Ritz brilliantly states in the set's superb liner notes, Oscar's true north inspiration wasn't Art Tatum but Nat King Cole, whose cool improvisational lines, glamorous taste and swinging syncopation were admired greatly by Peterson.
Ritz interviewed Peterson before his death in 2007. During that interview, Peterson spoke of his admiration for Cole:
"Nat brought something else to the table. In a certain way, Nat set the table. He had an aesthetic that reflected extraordinary taste and refinement without sacrificing an iota of rhythm pulse. Nat swung much harder than Tatum. You can feel the blues more viscerally in Nat than Art. I never wanted to venture far from the blues base. You do that at the risk of losing your soul. The same is true of swing, that quixotic spontaneity that both locks in time while extending time."
The Oscar Peterson Duo was formed by accident at the tail end of a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall on September 18, 1949. Granz, the concert's promoter, decided to beat out customs officials by having the Canadian Peterson attend as an audience member. Then, shortly after midnight, Granz stepped to the mike and introduced Peterson, inviting him to the stage to play. Granz's move was designed to seem like a bonus or an afterthought, though Peterson certainly knew about his plans. Buddy Rich was supposed to be the drummer behind Peterson but there was a problem, depending on whose story you believe. Rich either was AWOL between acts or too whipped to go on following his previous performance and solo. Or both reasons might make the most sense—tired and off on an extended break.
Once Peterson began and Granz [pictured] heard the audience's roaring approval, he realized that Peterson could record without a drummer. Which, of course, would leave more money in Granz's pocket. Fortunately, money was an issue, since the results Granz eventually produced are startling on so many levels. Peterson not only re-invents the jazz piano on these studio recordings but also overtakes George Shearing and Erroll Garner as the instrument's most dynamic swinger.
One could pick any of the tracks on the new Verve set to illustrate Peterson's courage and genius. There's a Small Hotel is probably as good as any. The track opens with Peterson playing a relaxed fanfare of chords. Next comes a happy-go-lucky reading of the melody line, with a trill here and there. Peterson then begins to bend the melody line out of proportion, as though heating up metal just enough to twist it around.
Through the track, Peterson weaves a quilt of major and minor passages, adding blues tones here and there, and furtively referencing other pop tunes along the way. Then he winds down by launching a flock of lock chords, finishing with scrambling melody runs. Like all of the other tracks in this set, it's a perfect execution.
But so are Little White Lies, In the Middle of a Kiss (with its reference to Tadd Dameron's Good Bait) and Nameless. But wait, the disc jockey tributes Jumpin' With Symphony Sid and Robbins' Nest (with its wave to Clair de Lune) also are significant. Heck, all of the tracks defy gravity.
In the duos, you hear Peterson's tugging eagerness to show his stuff without going overboard. It's Peterson's restraint that's most fascinating. In his desire to make his mark, Peterson was wise enough to know that mass seduction requires tenderness and charm as well as technique.
JazzWax tracks: Oscar Peterson's Debut: The Clef/Mercury Duo Recordings (1949-1951) from Verve/Hip-O Select is a limited edition three-CD set. Which means once the copies that were printed are gone, that's it. The size of the set is unusual—the dimensions are roughly those of a 45-rpm sleeve—enabling a book with glossy photos of Peterson to be bound in and its words to be legible. The CDs slide into bound-in reproductions of the 10-inch albums that Granz released in the early 1950s. You'll find Debut as a download at iTunes or as a CD set here.
JazzWax clip: Here's a clip of Oscar Peterson backing Nat King Cole on Tenderly in 1957 during an appearance by Jazz at the Philharmonic musicians on Nat King Cole's TV show. Notice Cole's hand move instinctively to the top of the stool to play as the camera pans to Peterson at the start of his solo. And dig the brief flash of mutual admiration at the end as pianist Cole bows slightly to a gleaming Peterson...