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The Oscar Peterson Trio at the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival
Oscar Peterson - piano
Ray Brown - bass
Ed Thigpen - drums
Ray Brown - bass
Ed Thigpen - drums
An extremely gifted pianist with astonishing technique and an elegant touch on ballads, the great Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson burst on the scene in the 1940s as the heir apparent to the great Art Tatum. A gentle man from Montreal, Peterson was a favorite on the Jazz at the Philharmonic circuit during the late '40s and later established an exquisite chemistry with the world-class rhythm tandem of bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen. This was Peterson's working trio from 1959 through 1966 and together they made several classy recordings for the Verve label, including successful songbooks on George Gershwin, Irving Berlin Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter and Jimmy McHugh. Their appearance at the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival was one of the early performances of this edition of the Peterson trio (the pianist's previous trio with bassist Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis was a favorite on the Jazz at the Philharmonic circuit from 1953 to 1958). Thigpen's exquisite approach to the kit (he earned the nickname "Mr. Taste" while working in Peterson's trio) underscored the pianist's dazzling virtuosity with uncanny finesse, remarkable empathy and a relentlessly swinging style that fueled this trio.
They open their July 3rd set at Newport with a lightly swinging rendition of pianist Duke Jordan's most famous composition, "Jordu," written in 1954 and later popularized by hard bop trumpeter Clifford Brown. An intricate number with a memorable riff in the head, it features a delicate, chamber-like piano solo intro before the trio breaks into full swing mode with Thigpen's masterful brushwork fueling the proceedings. Peterson's frenetically swinging lines are his calling card here, steeped in the tradition of his pianistic heroes Teddy Wilson, Nat Cole and Art Tatum. Brown anchors this jaunty number with his resounding tones and inimitable walking groove while Thigpen plays it interactively and intuitively on the kit, responding to Peterson's accents and phrasing while simultaneously keeping the momentum moving forward with his unerring time feel.
The trio's blazing interpretation of Clifford Brown's "Daahoud" is a stunning chops showcase for the virtuosic pianist in which his Tatum-esque runs are prominently on display. Thigpen engages in some rapid-fire exchanges with the great pianist near the end of this hard bop anthem, which was introduced five years earlier by the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet. Their alluring rendition of Dizzy Gillespie's hauntingly beautiful ballad "Con Alma" is rendered with the chamber-like delicacy of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Thigpen puts a mesmerizing 12/8 pulse underneath to give a subtle African feel to this Dizzy staple. Peterson's inherent bluesiness comes to the fore on a tender rendition of the ballad "Close Your Eyes," which also features a resounding solo by bassist Brown, and the trio closes out their set in exhilarating fashion with a frisky rendition of Dizzy's bop anthem "Woody N' You," taken at a breakneck pace and with Thigpen deftly injecting some Afro-Cuban accents while maintaining the swinging momentum. Peterson's dazzling right-handed lines here are simply astounding, further fueling the legend of what many perceived to be Art Tatum's heir apparent.
Born on August 15, 1925 in the poor, predominantly black neighborhood of Little Burgundy in Montreal, Peterson began playing piano at age five and by age nine had already mastered several classical pieces as well as ragtime and boogie woogie numbers. In 1940, at age 14, he won a national music competition organized by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and soon after dropped out of school to become a professional pianist, working for a weekly radio show while also playing at hotels and music halls around Montreal. In 1949, his career got a big boost when impresario Norman Granz introduced Peterson at a Jazz at the Philharmonic show at New York's Carnegie Hall. He subsequently recorded several brilliant duo and trio recordings for Granz's Clef, Norgran and Verve labels and through his many Jazz at the Philharmonic engagements was able to play with many major jazz artists of the day, including Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Buddy Rich, Milt Jackson, Barney Kessel, Louis Armstrong, Stéphane Grappelli, Ella Fitzgerald, Clark Terry, Joe Pass, Anita O'Day, Fred Astaire, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz.
In the 1970s, Peterson formed another landmark trio with virtuoso guitarist Joe Pass and Danish bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (which emulated the success of Peterson's 1950s trio with guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Ray Brown. Through the 1970s, he participated in several all-star sessions for Granz's new label, Pablo Records with the likes of Count Basie, Roy Eldridge, Zoot Sims, Joe Pass, Clark Terry, Freddie Hubbard, Benny Carter, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Harry "Sweets" Edison and Dizzy Gillespie. In the 1980s, he played successfully in a duo with pianist Herbie Hancock. Following a stroke in 1993, Peterson returned to pubic performances on a limited basis beginning in 1995 and also made several live trio recordings for the Telarc label. In 1997, he received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement and an International Jazz Hall of Fame Award. In 1999, he joined forces with longtime friends and colleagues Ray Brown on bass and Milt Jackson on vibraphones for the Telarc recording The Very Tall Band: Live at the Blue Note. His last recording, 2004's A Night in Vienna, was released on Verve and featured guitarist Ulf Wakenius, bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson and drummer Martin Drew. Peterson died of kidney failure on December 23, 2007.
He was called the "Maharaja of the keyboard" by Duke Ellington, "O.P." by his friends and was widely regarded a member of jazz royalty. In Canada -- where he received many honorary doctorate degrees, was made an Officer of the Order of Canada (the country's highest civilian order for talent and service), was a member of the Order of Ontario and had schools and concert halls named after him -- he was generally regarded as a distinguished public figure as well as a legendary figure in jazz history. Peterson released over 200 recordings, won seven Grammy Awards, received other numerous awards and honors, and played thousands of live concerts to audiences all over the world in a career lasting more than 65 years. This particular July day in 1964 at Newport captures the legendary pianist at the height of his creative powers.