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January/February 2005

Oscar Peterson Trio
Live at the Blue Note: The Complete Recordings, March 16-18, 1990
Telarc

In March of 1990, Oscar Peterson played a two-week engagement at the Blue Note in New York with a group billed as the Oscar Peterson Trio, even though it contained four players. Peterson was on piano, Ray Brown was on bass, Herb Ellis was on guitar and Bobby Durham was on drums. The billing was no doubt intended to capitalize on the fact that Peterson, Brown and Ellis had been one of the most popular jazz trios of the 1950s. The three had rarely played together between 1958 and this 1990 New York gig.

Telarc, a successful classical label just breaking into jazz at the time, recorded the last three nights of the engagement. Over the next two years, music from each night was released on individual CDs: The Legendary Oscar Peterson Trio Live at the Blue Note, Saturday Night at the Blue Note and Last Call at the Blue Note. Telarc took one last pass in 1993, with Encore at the Blue Note, a selection of "other fine moments" from the three nights. The first two albums won Grammy trophies. In late 2004, Telarc reissued this material in a four-CD set. You will look in vain for previously unissued tracks or remastering. But you get four CDs for the price of two, a very slick slip case (all four-CD sets should be packaged this way) and new liner notes by Alyn Shipton, jazz critic for the Times of London.

On Oscar Peterson, there are two broad critical schools of thought. The first (probably more widely held) is that Peterson is a virtuoso who deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence with Art Tatum. The second is that Peterson is a virtuoso, and that it is difficult to care very much about this fact. If it is the second perspective that holds sway in this review, it is hopefully not without respect for the first. Opinions about Peterson's music are even more subjective than most judgments about art. If his works for you, then you are going to love this set, because it contains almost five hours of torrential floods of pure Peterson. You are going to love tunes like "Sushi" and "Blues Etude," which prove that Peterson, at 65, could play as fast as any pianist who ever lived. You are going to marvel at his command of phrasing, his harmonic knowledge and his embodiment of so much jazz piano history. You are going to be dazzled by the hook-up with guitarist Herb Ellis, especially given the 32-year hiatus in their musical relationship.

But if Peterson does not move you, then you are likely to find his fast pieces rather like musical Formula One car races, complete with hairpin turns. You will find the rewards of the dazzling fours between Peterson and Ellis more athletic than aesthetic. You will have reservations about ballads like "It Never Entered My Mind" and "A Child Is Born," believing that, for a jazz improviser, these songs should be occasions for self-revelation, but that in Peterson's hands they are elegant, flawless and detached.

Originally published in January/February 2005
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