Oscar Peterson: Grace and elegant virtuosity

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Oscar Peterson: Summer Night in Munich

When I heard that jazz piano giant Oscar Peterson had died recently, this was the album I wanted to hear to remember him by. I had first heard part of it the night the death of Peterson’s longtime bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen was announced on a local jazz radio station. The dj played the third track of the album, Nigerian Marketplace, because it began with a long bass solo. I was in the car at the time and had just gotten where I was going when the tune started. I sat there in the car until it ended nearly ten minutes later.

Like much of Peterson’s vast library of recordings, Summer Night in Munich is a stunning display of technical mastery and eminently listenable jazz. Peterson rarely pushed the envelope stylistically. As the New York Times obit points out, “rather than expand the boundaries of jazz, he used his gifts in the service of moderation and reliability, gratifying his devoted audiences whether he was playing in a trio or solo or accompanying some of the most famous names of jazz.” Some critics felt that he traded virtuosity for emotion or tension in his playing.

Listening to this disk again this week [and again and again], I’ll have to admit it doesn’t challenge me, doesn’t stretch my ear as free jazz—or even some old school be-bop—does. But the music has such grace and polish and elegant, intimate conversation going on among the musicians that I don’t miss the challenges.

Peterson suffered a stroke in 1993 that diminished the skills of his left hand. He responded by finding ways to make his right hand do more. It is evident in this 1998 recording. You don’t hear a lot in the way of the lower notes of the left hand; the piano is a bright, lively presence made up mostly of the higher register notes of the right. But bassist Pedersen steps up beautifully, supplying not only the stellar bass technique he was known for, but occasionally adding almost pianolike playing, particularly on the ballads. Drummer Martin Drew and guitarist Ulf Wakenius round out the quartet.

Seven of the eight tracks are Oscar Peterson compositions. For me, these are the best work on the disk. But even his take on Duke Ellington’s Satin Doll satisfies. No, Summer Night in Munich doesn’t take jazz in any new directions. But it shows how, with the right musicians, there’s still much to be explored in the places jazz has already been.

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4 Responses to “Oscar Peterson: Grace and elegant virtuosity”

  1. Mary Coleman Says:

    We celebrated Oscar’s life ourselves over the holidays. One of my faves is Oscar Peterson Plays the Cole Porter Songbook. It was recorded in 1959 and is on Verve Records.
    It is amazing.
    Happy New Year!
    Mary

  2. Terry B Says:

    Happy new year to you too, Mary! I don’t know this album, but I love Ella Fitzgerald’s Cole Porter Songbook. With such great material and Peterson’s amazing touch on the keyboard, I’m sure it’s sublime.

  3. Toni Says:

    Delayed response to this, but Oscar Peterson’s work is a reminder of why certain musicians will be in people’s collections for generations. No, he didn’t push the envelope like Coltrane did. But you could make the same kind of statement about Vivaldi vs. Bach. Many people who can’t listen to Bach can easily listen to Vivaldi. People who can’t listen to ‘Trane can listen to Peterson. And that’s really OK. There were snowy days in New Mexico when Peterson and Pederson were the perfect soundtrack for what was happening in the kitchen. And there were bright and brisk days when nothing less than Trane would do.

  4. Terry B Says:

    Toni—I absolutely agree. And while he didn’t push the envelope, he didn’t sink into the morass of easy listening either. The music he created was beautifully complex.

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