Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Oscar Peterson at the London House, Summer of 1961

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“There was a time when a cohesive, relatively long standing jazz band was recorded live for the sake of the music, pure and simple. Miles Davis at the Blackhawk and Plugged Nickel, Shelly Manne at the Blackhawk, Coltrane at the Village Vanguard, all manner of groups at Carnegie Hall (e.g., Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, you name it). Nothing contrived. The notion of a "concept" for recording was obvious: Here was a great band in a great locale, playing what they always play. Guest stars were great, but it was the band that mattered most.

In fact, the idea of recording live seems like a dated way to present a working band. One of the great on-site recording dates that's come and gone was the Oscar Peterson Trio (featuring Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen, clearly the pianist's best group) live at Chicago's London House (also come and gone).” 

- John Ephland excerpt from insert notes to The Trio Verve 539 063

“Peterson's Best

It's amazing how the clink of cocktail glasses, the cash register's jingle, and the voice of some loudmouth can be so annoying when you're actually at a jazz club, and so endearing when you're listening to a recording of a live performance. Listening to Verve's new five-CD set Oscar Peterson Trio: The London House Sessions ($80) won't solve this mystery, but every sound on this set is joy, whether it comes from Peterson and his trio or not. Peterson was a great entertainer who spun radiant, crystalline sounds out of the piano seemingly without effort. And while he usually locks into a bouncy groove, he can, with a seamless flourish, turn a tune on a

dime, shifting from something that makes you smile to something that stirs your soul. From his upbeat "I've Never Been in Love Before" to a contemplative version of "Confirmation," Peterson hits two extremes and makes every stop in between. Recorded at Chicago's London House in 1961, this is Peterson at his best. It just might be one of those rare occasions when listening to the recordings is better than being there.” 

— Ed Brown

“And yet, in the late 1960s, I had a number of piano playing friends who assured me that Oscar was really a different pianist than the one who was making LP’s by the fistful for Norman Granz and that what he really had to offer was being put on display in a series of six recordings that he made for the MPS label which was based in Germany one of which was entitled - The Way I Really Play! [The exclamation point is mine.]

I sought out these LP’s and after listening to them, it didn’t take me long to agree that there was indeed another Oscar Peterson, one who seemed to perform differently when he was doing so - Exclusively For My Friends - which is the title of the 4 CD set of the MPS albums that was issued by Verve in 1992 [314 513 830-2]

Oscar had told me on several occasions that his best playing had been done in private. I had heard him play with a wonderful muted pensiveness, and nothing on record - even the London House records themselves - equaled what I used to hear in the late-night sets at the London House.

So when Oscar told me that he believed these German recordings were the best he had ever made, my eyebrows rose. He said he wanted me to write liner notes for at least two of the albums, both containing only solo performances. 

- Excerpt from the JazzProfiles feature Oscar Peterson - In The Black Forest

I rarely take exception to Gene Lees’ opinions, but after re-posting the feature on Oscar Peterson’s recordings on MPS [aka “Black Forest recordings”], which Gene believes are superior to the 1961 London House recordings, I decided to revisit the London House sides, the result of which is the following feature. Actually, before he heard the MPS sides, Gene, too, held a different opinion as is reflected in the following quotation excerpted from his Oscar Peterson: The Will to Swing [1988]:

Richard Palmer, in his eighty-page 1984 monograph titled Oscar Peterson, [Jazz Master Series] wrote: "I have the highest regard for Granz; and over the 35 years of his close association with Oscar, there is no doubt that he has been a wise and creative influence on the pianist. But I don't think it can be denied that nearly all the '50s studio dates fail to present Peterson and his groups at their absolute best. Oscar more or less admitted this when he remarked that many people felt that 'the delicate and communicative rapport that they sensed in our in-person appearances was usually lost in the mechanical and cold confines of the studio' and 'I am inclined to agree to the extent that our group performs much better ... [when] a live audience is present.'" And the London House recordings, despite the unfortunate piano, attest to this.”

As to the “unfortunate piano,” when I asked pianist Tom Ranier if the piano on the Oscar Peterson London House recordings was out of tune he responded: WAY out!  And gets worse as the sets go on. Nevertheless some of the greatest ever IMHO.”

From 1955 when it first welcomed Jazz [it opened its doors in 1946] until its closing in the early 1970s when the interest in Jazz began to wane nationally, the London House at the corner of Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue was a stalwart venue for both domestic and touring Jazz groups.

Those who were familiar with the club talk about it with the same reverence usually associated with Birdland in New York, the Black Hawk in San Francisco and Shelly’s Manne Hole in Los Angeles [Hollywood].

Over the years, “live” [in performance] recordings were made at the London House by a host of Jazz artists including Johnny Pate, Billy Taylor, Marian McPartland, Gene Krupa, Sarah Vaughan, Bobby Hackett, Teddy Wilson and Earl “Fatha” Hines, Tyree Glenn, Dorothy Donegan, Henry “red” Allen, Charlie Shavers, Coleman Hawkins, The Three Sounds, Barbara Carroll and “Brother” Jack McDuff.

Perhaps one of the most artistically satisfying of all the performances recorded at the club were those made with the Oscar Peterson Trio over a span of time from July 11 - August 6, 1961.

Although it became commonplace in later years with advancements in on-location recording equipment and techniques, it should be kept in mind that 1961 was definitely “early days” as far as on site recordings were concerned.

But despite its technical and acoustic drawbacks [tinkling glasses, loud blenders, ringing telephones, talking audiences, AND out-of-tune pianos]] the movement to record Jazz in this format was whole-heartedly supported by Jazz musicians who had long maintained that they sounded better in performance before an audience than in the “controlled environment” of a sterile and often cavernous recording studio.

Michael Ullman’s booklet notes to the London House boxed set offers a number of these salient observations including an excellent comparison between the similarities and differences of the styles of Oscar and Art Tatum; why Oscar departed from the piano-guitar-bass trio format and opted to include a drummer instead of a guitar and why that drummer was Ed Thigpen; why the inspiration of an audience produces a different Oscar Peterson performance as compared to those recorded in a studio.

 “Oscar Peterson has been playing piano professionally for about fifty years and for much of that time he has been compared to Art Tatum. It's a comparison he has done nothing to discourage. Peterson meant his version of Ill Wind in this collection to be a tribute to his early idol: ‘It's a musical reminder of the way he would handle this type of thing', Peterson told critic Dom Cerulli in the Sixties-: ‘We used to discuss this it great length,’ he added.

Probably they were discussing the way each pianist introduces a tune freely, ranging over the piano in out-of-tempo swirls and glittering scales while offering the wary listener only an occasional glimpse of the melody. Both pianists like to approach a ballad obliquely, fluffing their feathers and flaunting their colors like jungle birds trying to impress an impassive potential mate. Both artists are technical marvels, tirelessly inventive players with astonishingly broad repertoires. Peterson likes to talk about his debt to Tatum, whom he calls one of his two best friends, the other being his father. Why, then, is Tatum, who is the favorite of dozens of celebrated pianists, including Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones, still an acquired taste for many listeners where Peterson is one of the music's most popular figures? And why was Tatum most effective playing solo and Peterson at his best playing with a trio? 

'For all of their similarities, and despite Peterson's admiration of his elder, they use their techniques differently. Listening to Tatum can be mind-boggling, even scary. In the middle of a ballad or mid-tempo piece, Tatum will pull the rug out from under you, seeming to abandon the beat while transforming the harmonies of a popular piece in unsettling ways, only to return to both the beat and more predictable chords when all hope seems lost. He plays cat-and-mouse with every aspect of a song; sometimes the listener feels like the mouse. With Peterson, you always know where you are, that you're in safe hands. Even at his most impressive, he's reassuring. His rhythms are insistent, his devices more decorative or engaging than disorienting. In a place where Tatum would follow a series of brilliantly executed runs with a chorus of manic, celebratory stride [piano], Peterson would offer repeated riffs that owe more to Basie's big band than to James P. Johnson or Fats Waller. The results are more predictable but also more comfortable.

The two pianists were, after all, raised in different eras. Tatum grew up with the stride players, who provided their own oom-pah or walking bass lines, and he dipped into the repertoire of Waller and others until the end of his life. Peterson came to the music towards the end of the Swing Era, when bop was first being heard: His early hero may have been Tarum, but he heard the big bands as well. ("My roots go back to people like Coleman Hawkins, harmonically speaking,' he told interviewer Len Lyons in the Seventies.) Peterson has such a wealth of technical devices and capabilities that one tends to forget that he rarely does more than flirt with stride's oom-pah bass or its repertoire. (An exception is his 1975 "Honeysuckle Rose", which he recorded in a duet with Joe Pass.) Even when he is playing more modern tunes, such as Bobby Timmons's Moanin' his models are Swing Era or early bop players. He uses the sweeping scales we hear in Tatum but also block chords like those of Nat Cole or Milt Buckner. His chomping left-hand chords and passages in tenths are in the tradition of Teddy Wilson; his percussiveness is a link to Bud Powell. At his best, Peterson is a lyrical player as well as a powerhouse.

The bebop numbers he chose to play here are all especially tuneful, among them Scrapple From the Apple, Daahoud, and Confirmation. He cares about touch: His favorite pianists, including Tatum, Cole and, a near contemporary, Hank Jones, all have light, pearly sounds and clean as well as dashing techniques. It's a sound we hear on the early choruses of Peterson's two takes of On Green Dolphin Street.  

Tatum’s flights of fancy were sometimes so unexpected that they could freeze any accompanists he had. No wonder he usually played alone. Peterson is a blusier player and, when he wants to be, as in the ballad In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, a more intimate, restful player. In certain situations, Peterson may play as many notes as Tatum did, but he naturally leaves room for a bass line - and he isn’t so unpredictable that an alert rhythm section can’t follow him. The rhythm section anchors Peterson’s playing. When that rhythm section consisted of Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen, it also inspired him.

"The Trio" as Peterson, Brown, and Thigpen were known, came together in 1959, two years before these live recordings took place at London House in Chicago. Brown had been playing with Peterson since 1950. (Their first recording session together, in March, began with the appropriately named "Debut", a series of duet records followed.) Then Peterson, perhaps with the famous King Cole Trio in mind, added a guitarist - first Barney Kessel, then Irving Ashby, and finally Herb Ellis. Peterson replaced Ellis in 1959 with drummer Ed Thigpen, he said, for reasons of "ego" In the same conversation with Lyons, he elaborated:

“There was a lot of talk about my virtuosity on the instrument, and some people were saying, "Oh, he can play that way with a guitar because it's got that light, fast sound, but he couldn't pull off those lines with a drummer burnin' up back there" . . We chose Ed Thigpen because of his brushwork and sensitivity in general.”

Peterson first heard his drummer-to-be while the latter was in the army. But Thigpen was a veteran in another sense as well, having worked with Cootie Williams and Bud Powell, among others. When he became available to Peterson, the Trio was formed.

It was an instant, and one suspects inevitable success. There should have been no doubt - about Peterson's ability to play with a drummer - he had taken part in countless live sessions with drummers and played as a sideman on dozens of studio recordings. His bassist was a star in his own right, and his drummer would soon become one. Thigpen may have been chosen for his sensitivity with brushes, but he also had - and has - a bright, swinging style on mid- and up-tempo pieces. He has a cheerful as well as propulsive sound: Listen to the joyous bounce of his cymbals on 'Scrapple From the Apple.' Brown had already been featured with the Dizzy Gillespie big band and had toured with Ella Fitzgerald. One of the greatest jazz bassists, he was also the first bassist in the Modern Jazz Quartet. He plays the fastest lines with a huge, rich sound. He's steady as a rock and he's an inventive, witty soloist, as we can hear on Tricrotism. This trio recorded almost incessantly from their onset in 1959, making albums of Cole Porter, Ellington, and Gershwin material, as well as a half dozen assorted records, all in their first year. There's a lot of Peterson to choose from.

Still, the London House sessions stand out. Peterson is a tough self-critic; he had the final say on which of his recordings would be released during his tenure with Verve (ending in 1962). Eventually there was enough material selected from the London House engagement to make four LPs.They're all included here: The Trio (V6-8420), The Sound of the Trio (V6-848D), Put on a Happy Face (V6-8660), and Something Warm (V6-8BB1). With this collection, the available music from those sets is almost doubled. When Lyons asked the pianist what his favorite albums were amongst all he had recorded, Peterrson started a short list with The Trio.

One can hear why Like most jazz musicians, Peterson tends to be inspired by nightclub audiences. He lets go, playing longer versions of standards than he might otherwise, wowing the crowd with buoyant, powerful riffing. He's more showy here than in the studio and more dramatic. At times he sounds sportive, even satirical. (At least that's how I hear the exotic splashes of color at the beginning of On Green Dolphin Street. The melody is virtually lost in waves of decoration until suddenly Peterson plinks it out with the glassy spareness of Ahmad Jamal. The contrast is comical as is his later quotation of Tenderly.)

There are of course disadvantages to a live recording: The ballads sometimes take place over the audible shuffling of silverware, and the microphones also pick up a ringing telephone and an occasional nonmusical conversation. At the end of one set, Peterson praises his fans: "We would like to thank most of you for being a wonderful audience. There's one in every crowd” But usually the audience brings out the best in the trio.

There are plenty of highlights, moods ranging from the ripping exuberance of the up-tempo Swamp Fire to the easygoing bluesiness of Better Luck Next Time to the comparative sobriety of quieter numbers, such as Peterson's own The Lonesome One with its hints of "Here's That Rainy Day".

Few listeners think of Peterson as a ballad player, but his most touching performances are frequently his most modest renditions of sophisticated tunes, such as the version of 'In the Wee Small Hours' included here. (He follows it up with a jaunty Chicago that sounds glib by contrast. We can excuse him because of his need to pay tribute to his host city.) He's equally affecting on Jim, which he begins with an expansive solo introduction. It's a performance that shows the sensitivity of his band members. At one point in his improvisation, the pianist is strumming with his left hand while playing thirds with his right. He plays an ascending arpeggio, followed by a bluesy descent. Meanwhile Brown is dancing about lightly and Thigpen swishing with brushes. With a repeated passage, Peterson gives the subtlest hint that he wants more energy, and Thigpen responds instantly, providing a more buoyant, rocking beat for the next few choruses until Peterson suggests that he wants to return to the original mood.

Peterson features Thigpen on Thag's Dance, a piece he wrote to display his drummer's brushes. Brown gets his feature too: Oscar Pettiford's knotty bebop line, "Tricrotism" (Evidently Peterson used to tease Brown by saying that Pettiford, a great bebop bassist whom Brown idolized, was in the audience - even when he wasn't. Brown paid his boss back by telling him at various gigs that Tatum was sitting at the bar. One night Tatum actually was, and Peterson froze, ending his set abruptly.) Peterson can play ballads, but he is rarely wistful for long. I Remember Clifford is Benny Golson's touching tribute to his friend, the late Cliiiord Brown. Peterson evokes something of its tender spirit - for a while. Then launches into double-time choruses that prove exciting ii not particularly germane to the composer's intentions. 

Peterson for the most part is irrepressible even if controlled. He may surprise his audience, but he never seems to surprise himself, working up steadily to his most excited moments, churning through choruses that lead him seemingly inevitably to the riffing of his climaxes. 

Peterson likes to play the blues as well as standards; he plays them cheerfully. On the other hand, he can turn virtually any song into a crypto-blues, including the unlikely Sometimes I'm Happy, to which he adds crushed notes and thumping, repeated phrases. Bluesy, exciting, full of singable lines, the issued version of "Sometimes I'm Happy' is one of Peterson's most successful performances. Now we have a second version.

There's a bonanza of previously unissued material, including a magisterial performance oi Sophisticated Lady, Clifford Brown's "Daahoud" and, for a change in meter, The Gravy Waltz, to say nothing of a bunch of new versions of Billy Boy, which Peterson uses as background music while he thanks the audience. The LPs from London House have been among the most treasured collector's items of generations of Oscar Peterson fans. There's twice as much to treasure here, and a lot to celebrate.”

Michael Ullman, April, 1996


No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave your comments here. Thank you.