Thursday, April 28, 2022

Oscar Peterson - The Canadiana Suite [From the Archives with Revisions]

 © -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Way back when, I never knew much about the comings-and-goings of Jazz artists on Jazz record labels.

What I did “know” was that pianist Oscar Peterson [OP] had always recorded for the various record companies owned by Norman Granz.

Which is why it came as something of a shock when I purchased Oscar’s Canadiana Suite a double-fold LP and found that it was issued in 1964 on Limelight as LM 82010.  It was one of the last recordings by Oscar’s trio featuring Ray Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums.

I learned much later that Norman Granz sold his Verve and associated labels to MGM in 1960, but Oscar had to remain with Verve for a few more years due to his contract commitments.

Norman would return to recording Jazz about a decade later when he formed the Pablo Records label and Oscar would return to working with him in this new setting, both with his own trio and quartet and as a guest on recordings  headed-up by other Jazz artists.

Canadiana Suite has remained as one of my favorite OP recordings because his playing on the album is so understated. Oscar has phenomenal technique and is such an intense performer that I often feel overwhelmed when listening to his earlier recordings. They just take my breath away. On course, his musicianship is marvelous to behold, but sometimes I wish there wasn’t so much of it.

With his Canadiana Suite, my wish came true.

Here’s some background information on the recording which continues to be available both as a CD and as an Mp3 download.

“Oscar needs space; he perversely loves the cold of Canada. He is Canadian.”
- Gene Lees, Oscar Peterson: The Will To Swing

“Peterson's contract with Verve ran out in 1964 and he left the company. He signed with Limelight, a new subsidiary of Mercury that would prove to be desultory and ineffectual and eventually was closed down. The Limelight albums are not rated among his best, although one is notable as his first substantial venture as a composer. This was the Canadiana Suite. Oscar sent me a test pressing in New York and asked me to write the liner notes, which I did.”
- Gene Lees, Oscar Peterson: The Will To Swing

“The pieces that make up Oscar's Canadiana Suite, recorded first in 1964, proceed across Canada from east to west, which is the way the country thinks, in the precise sequence of the railway journey from the Adantic to the Pacific: Ballad to the East, Laurentides Waltz (les Laurentides is the French name for the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec, and anyone born and raised in Quebec, like Oscar, tends to think of them that way), Place St. Henri, Hogtown Blues (Canadians traditionally dislike Toronto and have since time out of mind called it Hogtown), Blues of the Prairies, March Past, which refers to the Calgary Stampede parade, and Land of the Misty Giants (the Rocky Mountains). Those pieces are like views from a train window; or perhaps memories of a father's descriptions of the land when he would come home from his journeys and supervise his son's piano lessons.”
- Gene Lees, Oscar Peterson: The Will To Swing

“There are, I suppose, two reasons why I was asked to write the notes for Oscar Peterson's Canadiana Suite.

First, Oscar and I are old friends. While I was editor of Down Beat I would, whenever he and the trio appeared in Chicago, spend entire evenings listening to them. Afterwards, Oscar and I would often argue until dawn — about music, politics, women, anything. Oscar loves debate, and so do I.

The second reason is that Os and I are both Canadians. I met him 16 years ago; and knew about him long before that. Several of my friends went to high school with Oscar in Montreal. I know how deeply he feels about Canada.

It is difficult to sound pro-your own country without sounding anti-somebody else's. Os isn't anti-anything, except perhaps anti-nonsense. But he is deeply pro-Canadian, which is why Canada is perhaps the only subject on which we've never been able to work up a good argument. Oscar feels Canada, that vast and mostly empty place (empty in spite its great cities) whose very solitudes become a part of your aesthetics and your pride. There is reassurance in knowing, as you sit in some excellent restaurant in Toronto or Montreal and Vancouver turning a wine glass in your hand, that not very far away you can find empty land — land as yet unscarred by billboards and beer cans, Kleenex and Dixie cups. There is such ineffable dignity in the spreading emptiness that is never far away. I believe Canadians are a lonely people; and secretly proud of their loneliness. It was inevitable that Oscar would try to express some of this in music.

Canada has been celebrated in art in the past, but mostly by painters. Its actors and musicians and many of its writers, have always left, to find their fortune and expression in France or England or the United States. Oscar is one of the first of what I think of as a new breed of Canadian artists—as is the great concert pianist Glenn Gould. They are ones who stayed. They let their fame go out from Canada, instead of themselves going. This only heightens the respect I have for them on musical grounds. Oscar has always lived in Canada, and in recent years has helped redress the balance of Canadian artists lost to other countries by inducing his co-workers in the Trio—Ray Brown, indisputably the greatest of all jazz bassists, and the superb drummer Edmund Thigpen —to take residence in Toronto.

There is one minor question to be cleared up before we get on to the music. Isn't it odd to paint a portrait of Canada in jazz, an indigenous art of the United States? No. It is no more odd for Oscar to portray Canada in terms of jazz than it is for Aaron Copland to portray the Appalachian Mountains in terms of European classical music. Music is an international language, jazz included.

Oscar's suite is divided into eight parts, which take you on a journey from the Atlantic coast westwards to British Columbia, where the Rocky Mountains plunge into the Pacific. That's five days by train, by the way.

Ballad to the East is a sketch of the Maritime Provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. Oscar visited there for the first time shortly after the suite was completed. Previously he knew it only from paintings and photographs. "I saw it in my mind in terms of the color blue,” he said.

Laurentides Waltz projects Oscar's impressions of the Laurentians, the pine-covered rolling mountain range of Quebec, which begins thirty miles or so north of Montreal. Laurentides is the French name for the range; Oscar was born and raised in French Canada. "I've been in the Laurentians mostly in the skiing season,” Oscar said, "and it's always been a happy, swinging kind of place, with a crisp effect. This is the most seasonal section of the suite—it is supposed to be a winter scene that you're facing." Curiously, I have visited the Laurentians mostly in summer, when the swimming in mountain lakes is marvelous, and I find Oscar's waltz equally apt in describing the mountains in that season. His brilliant piano runs may evoke the weaving line of a descending skier for some; I see in them the wings of spray from water skis.

As for Hogtown Blues-—well, a lot of Canadians dislike Toronto, as many Americans dislike New York, and for similar reasons. They say the city is all business and hustle, with no heart, and they call it "Hogtown.” "But I think of Toronto lovingly," Oscar said. "I tried to capture an impression of it by using an expansion type blues. It is fairly simply stated at the start. Using the harmonic content of the melodic line, I tried to give a feeling of the expansion this city is going through, and attempted to use the solos to typify the moods of the place at various times."

This selection brings us to the end of Side One— and the end of Eastern Canada. From here on, you're starting to get into the west, and the musical transition is made suddenly with Blues of the Prairie.

"Here, too, a blues form is used,” Oscar said. "But this obviously refers to the expansiveness I saw in the prairies. The lope is to give the impression of horses and cowboys. It is set at dusk. We tried to give a rolling feeling to the music, which doesn't have the dynamic peaks in the melody that you'll find in some of the other sections."

Wheatlands needs no textual explanation. You can see the shimmering of the wheat in the wind within a few bars of the opening. This is awesomely flat country where, they say, if you stand on a railway embankment six feet high, you can see 50 miles.

March Past describes the parade that precedes the Calgary Stampede, one of North America's biggest rodeo events. Oscar got the impressions that gave rise to it from watching the parade on television. "This is a happy time Canada feeling," he said.

There are more impressive mountain ranges in the world than the Canadian Rockies. The Andes are bigger; but the Andes are a cold and ruthless blue. No range in the world has as much color, and none is more beautiful, than the Rockies. Oscar has portrayed them in Land of the Misty Giants. "Here," he said, "the feeling of the music is somewhat like that of the Eastern provinces, except that the scene as you approach is much more imposing. Yet there is an almost ethereal quality to the Rockies. That's what I tried to show, and that's the reason for the title."

Oscar Peterson's Canadiana Suite was a year in preparation. He composed it on the road and at home in Toronto. "Obviously," he said, "it was conceived in personal terms. But it was left very loose, to permit the freedom of jazz in performance. I want to hear the different reactions and feelings that Ray and Ed and I get each time we do it."

The work was first performed on the Wayne and Shuster television show, which originates in Toronto. Its concert premiere was at the Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Centennial in the summer of 1964.”

—Gene Lees

Oscar, Ray and Ed perform Place St. Henri from the Canadiana Suite on the following video.

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