Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Oscar Peterson by Richard Palmer

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

Perhaps not as well known in the USA as their American counterparts such as Nat Hentoff, Gene Lees and Ira Gitler, among many others, England also has [and has had for quite some time] a bevy of established Jazz authors and critics who have contributed articles to continuing UK-based magazines devoted to the subject such as Jazz Journal, Crescendo International and Melody Maker along with writing regular columns in British newspapers and numerous individual book titles on various aspects of Jazz and its makers.

Some of these titles have been commissioned as part of collections such as the Jazz Masters Series which is composed of small folio editions on leading Jazz artists. These were published in the 1980s and we have previously included full representations of two of the books in this series: Alun Morgan’s Jazz Master Series - Count Basie and Steve Voce’s Jazz Master Series - Woody Herman. Links for both of these multi-part postings can be located in the blog archives LABELS located by scrolling down the sidebar of this page.

The Richard Palmer Jazz Master Series 93-page treatment [including a brief discography] of Oscar Peterson recently came to our attention while we were working on blog features about Oscar’s London House recordings on Verve and his later “Black Forest” recordings on MPS. Both of these pieces are also linked under LABELS.

In Part One: The Man and Part Two: The Career, Palmer offers an overview of the significant aspects of Oscar’s career up to 1984, the year of the book’s publication.

But what I found particularly fascinating was Palmer’s insightful treatment of two subjects which make up Part Three of his OP book: One - Peterson and Art Tatum and Two - The Peterson Style and I thought I would share his unique perspective on both of these subjects with you in the following excerpts.


“In the previous sections I have traced Peterson's career from its Canadian inception to the present day. Such a chronological approach cannot, however, tell the full story. In the end, the most illuminating and enduring aesthetic judgments derive from a critical stance which, while recognising the importance of historical context, also stands free from it, able to assess the work in question in terms of its own purpose and its pure significance as art.

It seems to me especially important to make this point in a book about a jazz musician. Jazz criticism still suffers from a damaging naivety in both a fondness for an adolescently Romantic view of 'the artist' and an excessive respect for 'innovators'. Oscar Peterson's critical reputation and his 'image' have been twin casualties of this regrettable ethos. As 'an unglamorous cat from an unglamorous northern town (Toronto)',1 [Oscar to Leonard Feather in Satchmo to Miles]  Oscar has fallen foul of the facile cultural philosophy that bedevils much jazz polemic; and the fact that it is not possible to talk of a Peterson 'school' of jazz piano, as one can unarguably refer to a Monk, Powell, or Evans 'school', has greatly reduced his oeuvre in the eyes of those from whom greatness in jazz is indissolubly linked with major status as an innovator.

My own view is that although it is absurd to deny the central importance of such innovators as Armstrong, Ellington, Hawkins, Young, Parker, and Gillespie (to name only an obvious few), it is equally absurd to elevate originality as such into a primary criterion. In all art, history does not ask who did it first, but who did it best; and in attempting a critical evaluation of Peterson's music, I shall be arguing that he has the strongest possible claim to be considered under that latter, more decisive category. I start with an analysis of Oscar's musical relationship to Art Tatum.

Peterson and Tatum

“I'd go to bed at night, and it haunted me that someone could play the piano that well. (‘Oscar Peterson in Conversation with Andre Previn.’ An illustrated musical reminiscence broadcast on Omnibus, BBC TV, 11/12/1974 and14/9/1975]

- Oscar Peterson on first hearing Art Tatum

“I have yet to read an account of Peterson's work in any jazz encyclopedia or full-scale survey that does not place him firmly (and usually lukewarmly) in the category of Tatum's acolytes. As I have intimated several times along the way, I consider such a view neither just nor properly illuminating; and this section attempts, through a modicum of musical analysis, to get the matter of Peterson's pianistic relationship to Tatum into some kind of satisfactory perspective.

Most people are to some degree lazy; and critics are people too, even if some musicians do not always seem inclined to agree! So when a musician like Peterson talks with such awe, affection and admiration about a pianist like Tatum, as he always has, the temptation is to take such remarks at face value, and conclude that Peterson's own style is a direct reflection of Tatum's spell. To succumb to such a temptation may be readily understandable, but it does not make for very impressive criticism; and I contend that there has been less and less excuse for such a categorisation of Oscar's style the further one travels down the thirty-five years of his career.

Let us begin with direct comparisons. To play a Peterson version of a song alongside a Tatum performance of the same tune is invariably a salutary experience, showing that there is little close similarity. The locus classicus of this phenomenon is Oscar's declared 'tribute' to Art -the 1962 recording of Ill Wind, as compared with Tatum's version of the tune on the Solo Masterpieces collection.* [*The Peterson is on Verve V-8480, the Tatum on Pablo 2625 703.]

On the liner notes to the Peterson recording, Oscar comments: 'It's a musical reminder of the way (Art) would handle this type of thing. We used to discuss this at great length.' However, twelve years later Peterson, having played this arrangement at Andre Previn's request, argued a very different case:

“As I was playing that, I was thinking to myself, 'This really isn't Tatum.' You couldn't really say that was Art Tatum's style: it was more my reaction to that style.” (AP)

There is no doubt in my mind that the second of these two comments is much the more accurate. Even on the first chorus, delivered out of tempo, there is only one run that is bona fide Tatum, occurring at bars 22-24 of the theme statement, just before the bridge. (Peterson went on to reveal to Previn that the run in question was the only Tatum run he could consciously play.) The rest of this solo passage may be Tatumesque in a very broad sense - the use of lightning arpeggios, the clusters of densely-harmonised notes, the astonishing pirouetting across the entire range of the piano; but at a more detailed and profound level, it is quite distinct from its dedicatee's methods. It is Peterson's licks and familiar approach that dominate, not Tatum's. And when Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen enter, the performance removes itself from Tatum's shadow even more obviously. Brown's surging lines are of a kind that one never encounters on any Tatum performance, partly because Tatum's style would never have enabled a bassist to function so centrally or freely. I return to this point shortly.

There are two even more noteworthy differences. One, the track swings in an earthy fashion - something Tatum never did; and two, Oscar's reading is much more focused on the melody than was Tatum's wont. One way of putting it might be that Peterson's version is much easier to listen to: although the tune's harmonic structure is richly mined, Oscar and Ray keep the melody in the forefront throughout, and their reading has a logic that is comfortable to follow. Listening to Tatum's solo interpretation of the tune hammers home this point even more forcefully.

Tatum's is, naturally, a stunning performance. It begins with a prelude that has little to do with the tune's melody or harmonies, but which sets up the theme statement enchantingly. Then by the time Art reaches the bridge, he is already into rhythmic variations of a subtle and different kind, now slowing, now accelerating the tempo; and once into the development, he demands the strictest attention as he re-writes harmony and structure at will. To be sure, the melody keeps resurfacing in dazzling, tantalising snippets; but the constant shifts in tempo and key create a fantastic design that utilises the tune as mere clay. Throughout, despite such total transformation, the tune's underlying shape is implied, and the pulse is infallible: listening to Tatum invariably requires a metronome, if only to prove that he's right and your ears are wrong if you detect a dropped or muddied beat. But in essence Tatum's version is the ultimate in baroque, whereas Peterson offers a fundamentally Romantic treatment, naked and uncluttered in its impact for all its bravura embellishment.

That last distinction serves as a useful summary of their separate styles as a whole; and it throws into starker relief the lack of insight shown by the normally-incisive Martin Williams, who judged Peterson's version 'a feeble pastiche' of Tatum, inferior in harmonic imagination and woefully lacking in 'pianistic adventure'.2 [Martin Williams, ‘Oscar Peterson: A Possible Minority Opinion,’ Jazz Journal, 4/64].Not only does this pillory Peterson for qualities he is not attempting to incorporate into his performance: it blatantly ignores the things Oscar does do, and which so clearly illustrate a wide discrepancy in both purpose and execution.

In Chapter Five I stressed Peterson's intelligence and awareness as a group pianist. It would be hard to argue that context as Tatum's metier. He was above all a solo virtuoso; and on many occasions one has the impression that playing with others constricts him, somehow lessens his art. Oscar has related that Tatum, playing Tea For Two at an old-style 'piano party', got through four bass players in under three choruses. Bassists as accomplished as Red Callender and Ray Brown himself could not stay with Tatum once he started throwing in those chromatic progressions and lightning changes of key. Oscar and Andre Previn laughed about it together -

“Peterson: Can you imagine being in a group with Art Tatum? 

Previn: No. It's difficult for me to imagine being in a room with Art Tatum! (AP)”

- but underneath such loving awe, there is the implication that Oscar had long ago decided that such an approach was not one he wished to emulate. And it is certainly true that Tatum's few trio records are very much piano plus faithful rhythm support, rather than the close-knit and reciprocally-stimulating groups that Peterson had always had.

The distinction is even more pronounced when considering Tatum's work with other soloists. Significantly Roy Eldridge, who made a hatful of superb albums with Oscar, sounds distinctly unhappy on his meeting with Tatum, and the album is one-sided and unsuccessful. Even the date with Ben Webster, an undoubted gem, drew this comment from the tenorist when recalling the session:

“Well, really, I shouldn't have been on that album. Nobody should ever have recorded with Art, because he did everything himself. He could say it all better than anyone that ever played with him, and there was so much inside him that he could never be an accompanist.” 3 [Steve Voce, ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing,’ Jazz Journal, 3/67].

Listening to the album yet again, I am struck by the incisiveness of Ben's remarks. For in effect Tatum solos all the time: there is no real difference between the lines he plays over bass and drums and those he essays while Ben is playing. Webster handles the situation with triumphant common sense, breathing out his languorous improvisations with an infallible regard for the tunes' own structure, leaving Art to do what he likes underneath, in between, and over his work. It's a marvelous record; but the methodology is highly precarious, and a recipe for chaos in most players' cases. It is instructive to compare it with the several albums Ben cut with Oscar, where every member of the personnel works for each other and is absolutely on top of what's going on.

There can be no doubt that Peterson's awe and immersion in Art's work are genuine. As Benny Green once revealed, Oscar is one of the few musicians of his generation to consider Tatum superior in influence and talent to Parker, much though he admires the altoist. How, then, does one explain this reverence and the marked disparity in style evident on so many of their respective recordings?

Discussing American literature, Harold Bloom has written a book tellingly entitled The Anxiety of Influence. One of its theses is that young writers have to remove themselves from the ambit of a writer they greatly admire, lest that influence drown their own potential to find something distinct to say. The problem is very similar for young jazz musicians; and Peterson recalls his own solution in terms that virtually echo Bloom's:

‘If I'd just listened to Tatum, I'd have become much the same as several pianists I know in various parts of the world - Tatum reproductions. I remember hearing a young pianist play The Man I Love and Sweet Lorraine - both straight Tatum. Now, at that time, Tatum hadn't recorded I Got Rhythm; and this pianist couldn't play it. He couldn't play it for the simple reason that he had to wait to see what God was going to say about the tune before he copied it. And that's why I never copied Tatum... You see, if you admire any player that much, and you start emulating him, continually, it will just overwhelm you, and you negate any personal creativity you might have that will come forward. (AP)’

In other words, Peterson had to come to terms internally with the disorientating experience of hearing Tatum. Gradually he absorbed its

power and its multitudinous messages, and evolved a style that was his own.

In conclusion, another insight from literary criticism furnishes an ideal model for determining the nature of Tatum's effect upon Oscar and its artistic manifestation. Christopher Ricks has suggested that one can see Milton's greatest achievement as the collected works of Alexander Pope. This strange but brilliantly argued notion traces the overwhelming effect that Milton had on the young poet, which fired him with an awed love of Milton's work in particular and poetry's possibilities in general; and as a result he set about carving his own, independent path towards a comparable excellence. In no way do Pope's poems embody a direct, derivative Miltonic style; but the elder poet's aesthetic ethos and linguistic magnificence are permanent imbuing factors.

A similar case can be put forward concerning Peterson and Tatum. Art's comprehensive mastery of the piano ignited the young Peterson's imagination, and that original revelation continues to underscore all that Peterson does. Yet he does it in a fashion that is stylistically separate, where specific purpose and methods bear little direct resemblance. Just as Pope's verse displays a greater bread-and-butter debt to his Augustan predecessor, Dryden, than to the genius who first stunned him, so Peterson's work evinces in its lines, phrasing and general approach a clearer debt to secondary influences - Powell, Cole, Shearing and Hank Jones - than to the man who simultaneously exhilarated and humiliated him. And for my final section, I now turn to an attempt to summarise the main characteristics of the style Peterson evolved in such a way.

(ii) The Peterson Style

“I remember Oscar Peterson listening to Sonny Stitt, and someone was being kind of critical. He heard a lot of Bird cliches just then, he said. And Oscar said, 'Listen to that - he's taken a lot of Bird cliches, and a lot of faster Young cliches, and a couple of things of Diz's, and I thought I heard something of mine in there, I'm not sure, and he's just smashed them all together, and God, isn't it gorgeous?'And I really drank to that one.'”

- Maynard Ferguson

Peterson's style has often been termed 'eclectic'. In a jazz context, this adjective is invariably pejorative, implying the cobbling-together of others' ideas into a mish-mash that at best merely approximates an individual personality. 'Eclectic' also goes hand-in-hand with the failure to be a true innovator and major influence on others.

It is true that Peterson's playing employs a wide-ranging vocabulary that perforce makes use of other musicians' work. It is also true that he has not founded an identifiable 'school' of jazz piano. A number of pianists show an extensive knowledge of and response to his work  - Ross Tomkins, Monty Alexander, Tony Lee, Eddie Thompson, Bernie Senensky (a Peterson protege) and Brian Lemon; but it cannot be said that Peterson's style has been directly instrumental in influencing the course of jazz, either in terms of the piano, or the music's genesis as a whole.

In my view the best answer to these observations, if they are leveled as criticisms, is a curt 'So what?'. Peterson's electicism is not a cannibalization of others' licks and ideas, but the product of a profound and literate awareness of the roots of jazz and its most creative developments. If his playing displays an equal appreciation of the power of James P. Johnson and the subtle revolution in voicings effected by Bill Evans, that seems to me to be cause for celebration and admiration, not derogation. Peterson's style is arguably one of the most personal in jazz, as instantly recognisable as that of Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young or Johnny Hodges. And the fact that his music covers such a vast idiomatic span is not best served by the parsimonious term 'eclectic': the word I have used several times during this book, 'encyclopedic' is both more accurate and properly complimentary. As a demonstration of this, I'd like to look briefly at the solo performance of Sweet Georgia Brown on the A Salle Pleyel album.

The introduction and theme are essentially pre-bop in their approach, except that some of the runs hint at Powell-like figures. These are fully developed in the three choruses following the theme, concentrated in the lower half of the piano and punctuated by boppish left hand at the very bed of the bass clef. Then dazzling stride is beautifully incorporated into the next two choruses, culminating in an astonishing unison passage that, set up by dark chords that dramatically break the rhythm, leads into two boogie-woogie choruses recognisably analogous to the old masters, yet done with a contrary-motion melodic attack that is entirely modern. The piece ends with two choruses which increase the already-ferocious tempo by a third, and signs off with a classic blues cadence.

Sweet Georgia Brown is an astounding performance. It is technically awesome, naturally; but the technique is simply the raw material, not the structure itself. The lines overflow with melody and a rich inprovisational logic, offering a mini-encylopedia of jazz piano styles while retaining an inviolate unity as an individual reading. And so the use of boogie-woogie and stride not only pay homage to Tatum, Waller and Wilson, demonstrating Peterson's pre-bop roots,* [*As the happiest proof of this, Clark Terry's Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Pablo 2312 105) is a treat. An album of Fats Waller's songs, it strongly features Oscar on piano, and his grasp of the style is lovingly masterly] but by being woven into a majestic tapestry that is the work of a modernist acquire a fresh and organic force. At all times, too, the interpretation is steeped in the earthy directness of the blues. And if it is among the most forbiddingly accomplished of all Oscar's recordings, the things that characterise it are to be found throughout his oeuvre.

The great innovators in jazz piano each added something central to its vocabulary. Earl Hines was the first to show that the piano could be used in jazz as if it were a horn - hence the term 'trumpet style' to define his radical, liberating use of the flashing right hand. Art Tatum brought a transcendent mastery of the piano's orchestral range that will never be repeated, plus a unique harmonic and rhythmic imagination that both anticipated bop and in some ways surpassed it. Thelonius Monk transformed traditional notions of harmonic structure and 'right' notes, and also, in his oblique fashion, set new trends in the way melody could be explored. Bud Powell, drawing on Monk and Tatum (and on Parker as well) developed a style that was commandingly original in its mixture of linear exploration and harmonic audacity. And Bill Evans became the idol of a whole generation of pianists for his ability to transform harmony from the inside of each chord, and for his outstanding lyricism.

Oscar Peterson learnt from all; and he does it all. Monk is not a pianist he admires;* [Peterson has always, however, regarded Monk as 'one of the greatest of all jazz composers'] but he absorbed that maverick's melodic innovations, developing an incisive and fetching way of re-working and exploring a melody: two notable examples are Maria from West Side Story, and Monk's own 'Round About Midnight, a solo performance to be found on the Freedom Song album. His embodiment of the others' contributions I have already gone into, although it is worth stressing the subtle but momentous effect Evans's work exerted on Peterson's ballad readings. A representative specimen is Who Can I Turn To on the first solo album, which Evans himself thought 'gorgeous, perfect'.5 [Leonard Feather, The Encyclopedia of Jazz: The Seventies, Quartet, 1976].He has used the cornucopian storehouse of jazz piano achievement as one constituent of his own art: the other major ingredients are his own imagination, an incomparable swinging drive, and a direct earthiness whose appeal is as profound as it is immediate.

Oscar Peterson is one of the handful of jazz stars whose eventual demise will mean the end of a noble and priceless style. Those who find him anonymous and mechanical have not, I suspect, listened to enough of his records, or with sufficient care. His style is straightforwardly Romantic in its vitality, warmth, lyrical strength and aspiration. It is pianistically supreme in its comprehensive intelligence and technical prowess, and profoundly durable in its organic variety. Oscar Peterson is one of the few absolute jazz masters, and he leaves no heirs.”

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