Norman Granz' Jazz at the Philharmonic First British Tour 1958 004
Pages 4 and 5 of the programme for Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic tour of Great Britain. Oscar Peterson is profiled, looking into his musical style and backing band, featuring Herb Ellis and Ray Brown.
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AT the age of thirty-three Oscar can justifiably claim that he is the top pianist in the British Empire. He started his rise to fame by winning an amateur contest when only fourteen, in his home town of Toronto. He was content to stay there until Norman Granz tempted him to New York and international recognition at a â Jazz at The Philharmonic â concert at Carnegie Hall, New York, in September, 1949. It is true to say that Oscar Peterson is the backbone of the Granz jazz entourage, having been a regular member of the Jazz at The Philharmonic group for the past eight years. During that period he has benefited from the opportunity to play with a cross-section of top American soloists, whose work has doubtless had influence on the development of his individual style.
He has enjoyed one remarkable privilege through these yearsâa constant rhythm backing provided by the able Ray Brown. Three guitarists have supported the duoâIrving Ashby, succeeded by Barney Kessel, and finally Herb Ellis. There can be no question that the close collaboration achieved by these men has materially affected the end-product as it reaches the keen listenerâs ears. It pleases me to find in Peterson a pinaist who does not have to rely on a drummer for his beat.
Oscar, a persistent poll winner on both sides of the Atlantic, has also developed quite a reputation as a singer, in the Nat Cole style. Of his piano work, much has been said, and much remains to be written. He has skilfully contrived a balance of swing and modern styles which has freshness and elegance in its very concept. Critics have suggested that he has borrowed from Shearing and Tatum, blending their styles with the more hackneyed Garner influence. I prefer to think that Oscarâs brilliant technique allows him to approach the exotic Tatum plumage whilst retaining the special Peterson ingredients which make his work so essentially listenable.
His block-chord work, suggestive of Shearing, more likely stems from Milt Buckner, one-time Hampton pianist who was a â name â during Oscarâs formative years. I have from time to time criticised him for his over-use of this somewhat heavy style, particularly in slow numbers; on up-tempo numbers he flashes through more chord progressions in a minute than most pianists would attempt in ten. Hard hitting rhythm seems to be his forte, the faster the fiercer. Precision comes next, in the immaculate right hand phrases so adroitly formulated to every context, whether fast or slow. In common with a handful of other eminent pianists he has an intriguing habit of humming, very audibly, the themes of his improvisations. On record this may be unseemlyâon stage it is a natural accessory to his performance.
Petersonâs style is so firmly identified and personified that he has few, if any, copyists; indeed, I doubt whether there are many pianists in the world today who could effectively copy this highly technical rhythm piano work. It would be reasonable to suggest that Andre Previn and Phineas Newborn both owe much of their derivation to Oscarâs impeccable technical approach. That his name and style are unquestionably established in the current period of jazz is beyond doubt.
Some people seek a guide to an artistâs best recorded works. I would venture â Astaire Blues â as my favourite, closely followed by two â Peterson Plays . . . âââEllington and Berlin. The latter is as yet unreleased in England, and is deserving of attention. My favourite critical quote on Oscarâs work comes from brother-pianist Steve Race in a recent Melody Maker article: â When he is in the mood, there is no more swinging jazzman on earth.â
I am happy to welcome back to England this powerful pianist, whose brief appearance in 1955 whetted the appetite of so many British jazz fans. Oscarâs prolific recordings have not completely filled the gap since then; his reappearance in todayâs exciting company is to me part of a cycle, whereby the greatest of the great trans-Atlantic jazz stars have progressively been introduced to audiences in England. If I may garner a phrase from an excellent tune title, my wish to you, Oscar, is â Play, piano, play â.
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