Oscar Peterson - piano
After the notorious gate-crashing incident of 1971, George Wein's annual summer clambake was essentially finished at Newport. But the savvy impresario kept the festival alive by relocating it to New York City in 1972. In the Big Apple, Wein drew from a wealth of venues around the city, including Radio City Music Hall, Lincoln Center's Philharmonic Hall, Yankee Stadium, and prestigious Carnegie Hall, the site of John Hammond's landmark "Spirituals to Swing" concert which introduced the concept of the multi-act jazz concert in 1938 and served as a precursor to both Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts and Wein's Newport Jazz Festival. One of the acts that Wein presented at Carnegie Hall in that inaugural year of the Newport Jazz Festival in New York was piano great Oscar Peterson, who appeared solo on an all-star bill with the Cannonball Adderley Quintet and the original Mahavishnu Orchestra.
A virtuoso of the highest order whose sheer command and dazzling facility on the piano was often compared to the immortal Art Tatum, Peterson was without a doubt Canada's greatest jazz star. Called the "Maharaja of the keyboard" by no less than Duke Ellington, the Montreal native was a favorite on the Jazz at the Philharmonic circuit from 1953 to 1958 with bassist Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis. He later established an exquisite chemistry with the world-class rhythm tandem of bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed "Mr. Taste" Thigpen, his working trio from 1959 through 1965. Together they made several classy, swinging recordings for the Verve label, including successful songbooks on George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers & Hart. But at this Carnegie concert in 1972, Peterson performed sans rhythm tandem.
He opens his July 6th solo set with "Mack the Knife," a Kurt Weill tune from the 1928 musical The Three Penny Opera that gained popularity in the States after hit records by Louis Armstrong in 1956 and Bobby Darin in 1959. Marked by subtle reharmonizations, dazzling right hand runs, and spirited Harlem stride playing, Peterson's dynamic interpretation of this familiar number is a pianistic marvel. Next up is a soulful reading of Dizzy Gillespie's most beguiling ballad, "Con Alma." Once again, the great pianist reverts to his signature stride style in the middle of this poignant piece, spinning more double-time filigrees before settling back into the lush fabric of Dizzy's affecting tune.
Peterson's own "Blues of the Prairies" is a jaunty 12-bar exercise full of sparkling runs and toe-tapping energy and is followed by a stirring interpretation of the dramatic Leslie Bricusse-Anthony Newley's tune "Who Can I Turn To?," putting his virtuosic stamp on that popular tune from the 1964 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint - the Smell of the Crowd. He closes out this rare solo performance with his "Blues Etude" (title track of a 1956 Verve album), an uptempo, bop-fueled burner that suitably showcases Peterson's peerless chops.
Born on August 15, 1925, in the poor, predominantly black neighborhood of Little Burgundy in Montreal, Peterson began playing piano at age five and by age nine had already mastered several classical pieces as well as ragtime and boogie woogie numbers. In 1940, at age 14, he won a national music competition organized by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and soon after dropped out of school to become a professional pianist, working for a weekly radio show while also playing at hotels and music halls around Montreal. In 1949, his career got a big boost when impresario Norman Granz introduced Peterson at a Jazz at the Philharmonic show at New York's Carnegie Hall. He subsequently recorded several brilliant duo and trio recordings for Granz's Clef, Norgran, and Verve labels and, through his many Jazz at the Philharmonic engagements, was able to play with many major jazz artists of the day, including Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Buddy Rich, Milt Jackson, Barney Kessel, Louis Armstrong, Stéphane Grappelli, Ella Fitzgerald, Clark Terry, Joe Pass, Anita O'Day, Fred Astaire, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, and Stan Getz.
In the 1970s, Peterson formed another landmark trio with virtuoso guitarist Joe Pass and Danish bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (which emulated the success of Peterson's 1950s trio with guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Ray Brown. Through the 1970s, he participated in several all-star sessions for Granz's new label, Pablo Records, with the likes of Count Basie, Roy Eldridge, Zoot Sims, Joe Pass, Clark Terry, Freddie Hubbard, Benny Carter, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Harry "Sweets" Edison, and Dizzy Gillespie. In the 1980s, he played successfully in a duo with pianist Herbie Hancock. Following a stroke in 1993, Peterson returned to pubic performances on a limited basis beginning in 1995 and also made several live trio recordings for the Telarc label. In 1997, he received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement and an International Jazz Hall of Fame Award. In 1999, he joined forces with longtime friends and colleagues Ray Brown on bass and Milt Jackson on vibraphones for the Telarc recording The Very Tall Band: Live at the Blue Note. His last recording, 2004's A Night in Vienna, was released on Verve and featured guitarist Ulf Wakenius, bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson, and drummer Martin Drew. Peterson died of kidney failure on December 23, 2007. (Milkowski)