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Oscar Peterson: Solo

Compared with his trio output, little of Oscar Peterson’s unaccompanied playing exists on CD, so these previously unissued solo concerts are a welcome addition to his discography. Recorded in Lebanon and the Netherlands in 1972, Solo finds Peterson full of energy and imagination and eager to fill the harmonic and rhythmic roles of his absent trio colleagues.

The pianos, particularly the one in Lebanon, may not have been in the same class as their player, but Peterson long ago figured out how to road test an instrument to see what it can handle. In Lebanon, we hear him audition the piano by way of a relatively cautious “Yesterdays.” Peterson’s caution resembles many other pianists’ maximum efforts. Then, following a jaunty introduction, he shifts up into a “Makin’ Whoopee” driven by the power of left-hand stride patterns that, in the trio, would make the bass player superfluous. Peterson finds joy in stride and uses modifications of the style to explode through “Take the ‘A’ Train” and sections of three blues. Even “Body and Soul” gets the treatment, and there’s a bit of stride samba in “Corcovado.”

Peterson’s velocity and control are astonishing on the Lebanon tracks. He has even greater fluidity and chance-taking in the Amsterdam concert, possibly due to a more agreeable piano. The identity of “Autumn Leaves” is disclosed only after two choruses of double-time ad-libbing at near the speed of light. Peterson charges through a program whose excitement is leavened by his ballad reflections on “Here’s That Rainy Day” and “Satin Doll.” “Mirage” begins in contemplation but evolves into a swinger. The album’s piece de resistance is Peterson’s “Hogtown Blues.” If the melody line doesn’t sound much like the song’s previous versions, and if the bass line has the album’s one finger bobble, who cares? It’s Peterson soaring, full of creativity, history and pizzazz.

The Oscar Peterson Trio with guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Ray Brown reached its recorded zenith in 1956 with At the Stratford Shakespearean Festival (Verve). Recorded at another Canadian festival, in Vancouver, Tenderly does not quite achieve the Stratford album’s heights of swing, intensity and excitement. Despite recording imperfections, though, it comes close, and it has three rarities of Peterson’s recorded repertoire. By August 1958, shortly before Ellis moved on, Peterson had honed the trio into an engine of swing that was also capable of ensemble delicacy and intricacy all but unprecedented in jazz. Two of the band’s staples, “How About You” and “The Gypsy in My Soul,” are repeated from the Stratford concert. “Gypsy” swings at least as hard as the earlier version.

“The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” which Peterson launches in a flurry of dissonances, goes from 0 to 60 in three seconds and never lets up. The trio discloses the other side of its personality in a “My Funny Valentine” that emphasizes the song’s and the musicians’ lyricism and reminds us that Ellis can be a gorgeous player of melody. It incorporates a bow toward Chopin and a thrilling section of chromatic modulation. There is more of the trio’s refinement, reflection and polish in “The Music Box Suite (Daisy’s Dream),” a Peterson composition that also includes a section of unrelenting swing. The only other recording of the suite surfaced on the CD reissue of the Stratford concert.

A piece I can find no other trace of in Peterson’s discography is “Pogo,” an uptempo tune on “I Got Rhythm” changes. Ellis is featured on his “Patricia,” a ballad with more of his heartfelt melodicism. “Tenderly,” of which Peterson makes much in his spoken introduction as the group’s theme, lopes along in a perfect medium groove for four minutes, then unceremoniously fades away 24 bars short of a full chorus and considerably short of a full performance. Applause is dubbed in and the music ends suspended in midair. That production oddity and occasional midrange frequency distortions in the recording are annoyances, but the music is wonderful.

Originally Published