Friday, January 11, 2008

Remembering Oscar Peterson

When Oscar Peterson died just before Christmas, memories of my jazz-infused youth came flooding back.

Peterson became my musical destination. I’d venture into Chicago on nasty winter nights to listen to “The Trio,” as it was aptly called. No other jazz trio rivaled it. The Windy City venue was the up-scale London House along Michigan Avenue. As the snow gusted and swirled off the lake, pianist extraordinaire Peterson, guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Ray Brown warmed the place with high-voltage jazz. The players would have all been in their thirties at the time — and feeling it.

A few years later, in the Bay Area, I’d make a similar pilgrimage, this time to San Francisco, The City, to hear Peterson, Ellis and Brown. Drummer Ed Thigpen and vibes player Milt Jackson became part of the mix. The smoke-filled jazz cloister was The Black Hawk in the Tenderloin. Those of us under drinking age sat in the back, segregated by chicken wire. We sipped over-priced Cokes, cheap at the price for the chance to feast on the sounds of Peterson and friends.

Peterson and company (in various configurations) defined trio jazz in the Fifties, Sixties and on into the Seventies. Among my many well-worn albums from the period was the trio’s on-the-mark tribute to Frank Sinatra. “Night Train” and “Affinity” were staples. I obliterated “Affinity,” wearing down its grooves until I had to buy a replacement.

The Canadian-born, classically-trained Peterson will be most remembered for his blazing technique. His runs and riffs bend the mind. Say what? How’s that? How could one musician squeeze off such a fusillade of notes?

At times, Peterson’s stunning mastery overwhelmed the music. His talent had a habit of overleaping bounds. He’d swerve out of a groove and into a rut. The good news was that the rut wasn’t a ditch; Oscar would always manage to wrestle himself back on track. Watching him do it was part of the exhilaration. Besides, even in a rut, the Peterson wheels kept spinning in wondrous ways.

I’ve found over the years that the Peterson performances I like best were collaborations with subtler, even understated, musicians, When you listen to the classic “Ella and Louis” album (and you must!), that’s Peterson backing them in an uncharacteristic, spare accompaniment. Peterson is also on the acclaimed Ella Fitzgerald “Songbook” albums. Listen carefully to the back-up chords and harmonies. Without Peterson’s filling in, “Ella and Louis” and the Verve “Songbooks” would not be the classics they have become.

Count Basie, a genius at keyboard understatement, had the same effect on Peterson in a series of “Satch and Josh” duet albums. All the sessions are excellent, but “Timekeepers” is my favorite of the lot. Oscar carefully, respectfully, embroiders Basie’s own spare solos. When it is Peterson’s turn to be front and center, he is clearly under the spell of Basie’s minimalism — and is a better musician for it.

Of course many of the musicians I’ve mentioned here are gone now: Basie, Milt, Ella, Louis, Ray. The music they left remains on CD and iTunes. It is a vibrant, resounding echo of my many musical pilgrimages.

The reverence remains.

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