Monday, December 24, 2007

Oscar Peterson in Jazz History

After all that writing about Bach, I settled down to watch the 3 PM telecast of the BBC News and learned that Oscar Peterson had died. I was glad to see that the BBC chose this as a "front page" story, even if their coverage left more than a little to be desired. Anyone who has any question as to the importance of reporting the death of such an important jazz pianist would to better to consult Wikipedia over the BBC, since this entry is less concerned with the personality of the man and more with his position in the grand scheme of jazz history.

The difference between the two accounts is most evident in the dog that failed to bark in the BBC account. That dog, of course, was Art Tatum, regarded by many as the strongest influence on Peterson. At the risk of making it all sound too reductive, just about any form of Western music comes down to the art of embellishment, how and where it is applied, how extensive it is, and, as the forms became more developed, how embellishments themselves could be embellished. In the history of classical music, Franz Liszt pushed embellishment to extremes that could be exasperating, if not offensive to some of more disciplined natures. To call Tatum the Liszt of jazz would not constitute offense to either pianist. Indeed, one of the frequent comments made about the vast catalog of Tatum recordings is that a little bit can go a long way.

However, in the spirit of that analogy, if Tatum was the Liszt of jazz, then Peterson was its Busoni, highly virtuosic in his understanding of both how to apply embellishment to the underlying "text" (i.e. song) and how to execute the embellishing without the embellished getting lost in the blur. When the CD was finally released of a session organized by Norman Granz that brought Peterson together with Count Basie, this was the first sentence on the back of the jewel case:

It could be argued that no two pianists could be more unalike than Count Basie, the master of understatement, and Oscar Peterson, the avatar of speed, power, and embellishment.

My own pet name for this CD is "The Minimalist Meets the Maximalist." The "official" name, however, is The Timekeepers, wherein all proper respect resides. Time was of the essence for both of these men, who knew full well that, without an "art of time," there is no "art of music." Thus, time was also the one element that could unite two such disparate performers, each of which understood the other in terms of strategies for how time passes (that last phrase having emerged in the title of an essay by Karlheinz Stockhausen, who may not have been a slouch where jazz was concerned).

Basie died back in 1984. Indeed, too many of the greatest who had performed so well with Peterson are gone as well. Atheist that I am, I still cannot resist the fantasy that they are all up there in heaven waiting for Oscar to join the jam. Meanwhile, there is so much of Oscar in every recording he made that the rest of us can keep learning to be better listeners from those recordings for some time to come.

1 comment:

America Jones said...

May he rest in peace, my favorite pianist.