Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Greenberg Recommends: Oscar Peterson

I was sixteen years old when I bought two record albums that changed my life. One was called “Oscar Peterson at the JATP” and the other “Oscar Peterson on Prestige”. “Oscar Peterson at the JATP” [‘Jazz at the Philharmonic’], the producer Norman Granz’ touring jazz mega-show] is available on a just-released, four-CD set called “Oscar Peterson, Live Recordings 1952-1958”, issued by the UK-based “Coda” label. Sadly, the set is not available in the United States for reasons inexplicable. However, it can be found on iTunes, and I would single out in particular a cut called “Come to the Mardi Gras” that cooks like a roomful of industrial ranges set on “broil”. With Ray Brown on bass and Herb Ellis on guitar it is – in my opinion – a must have despite the fact that it can only be acquired from the evil audio empire, the Starbucks of recorded sound (iTunes). In the name of great music we do what we must.

The other album named above – “Oscar Peterson on Prestige” – is indeed available, albeit under a different title. The circumstances behind its creation are fascinating, and it’s a story I’ll tell in a moment. But first, a few words about the man himself, Oscar Emmanuel Peterson (1925-2007).

In my previous post about the jazz drummer Tony Williams, I mentioned that Tony personally told me that Oscar Peterson was referred to in the jazz community as “Hercules”. Well, Hercules he was. Peterson was classically trained: as a child he studied with the Hungarian-born pianist Paul de Marky who was a student of István Thomán who studied with the Hungarian piano-stud himself, Franz Liszt. Peterson was what we’d correctly call a “pianimal”, someone who practiced the piano 4-6 hours a day well into his adulthood. The result of his training, practice regimen, and his genius was a jazz pianist with a technique and fluency rivaled only by his idol, Art Tatum. But more than Tatum, who so often displayed his technique by rolling up and down the keyboard playing impossibly fast scales, arpeggios, and figuration, Peterson used his technique in the service of the music he performed. He was a brilliant improviser and harmonist who synthesized blues, stride, be-bop, and a genuinely Wagnerian sort of chromatic harmony into a sound utterly and unmistakably his own.

Oscar Peterson made a lot of recordings. Amazon lists 396 albums (!), and that does not include – for example – the album “Oscar Peterson, Live Recordings 1952-1958” mentioned above. To my taste, many (if not most) of Peterson’s best albums were not recorded in his home country of Canada, nor in New York City, Chicago, LA, or even Willingboro, New Jersey but rather, in a living room in the town of Villingen-Schwennigen in the south-western corner of Germany, smack-dab in the middle of the Black Forest.

Here’s how that happened.

Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer (1927-2004) was the heir to a German manufacturing company named SABA, a company that made everything from tape recorders to bicycle bells. He was a passionate lover of jazz and in 1963 he decided to pursue his passion by founding a record company that he called SABA. Herr Brunner-Schwer was also a piano freak, so the first person he invited to record in his state-of-the-art studio – which just happened to be his living room there in Villingen – was none-other-than Oscar Peterson. In 1968, SABA Records was re-named “MPS”, which stands for “Musik Produktion Schwarzwald”, meaning “Music Production Black Forest”. (The sound quality of the records Brunner-Schwer made was so consistently good that jazz musicians nicknamed the MPS label “Most Perfect Sound”.)

The recordings Oscar Peterson made for SABA/MPS are superb. Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer’s living room/studio was equipped with a Bösendorfer grand and enough chairs and couches to allow a select group of friends to sit in on the recording sessions. Brunner-Schwer himself sat in the control room upstairs and watched the sessions on a closed circuit TV. It is abundantly clear that Oscar Peterson liked the piano and the atmosphere in Brunner-Schwer’s living room, because he made some of his very best recordings in that space. The four-CD set called “Exclusively For My Friends” was produced there, as were the albums “Motions and Emotion”, “Tristeza on Piano”, and a solo album called “Tracks”.

The album I mentioned at the very top of this missive – “Oscar Peterson on Prestige” – is in fact the third volume in Peterson’s “Exclusively For My Friends” series, a CD that today is titled “The Way I Really Play.” My friends, if you’ve read this far it means that you trust me, and if you trust me you will believe me when I tell you that you cannot live another day without hearing the album “The Way I Really Play”, volume three of “Exclusively For My Friends.” This is a piano trio album from heaven, and like Brahms’ Piano Quartets and reruns of “F Troop”, I tire from it NEVER. I’ve been listening to for 43 years – since 1970 – and there are still new and wonderful things to notice and hear. That is the mark of great music, however you measure it.

And while we’re talking about great, let’s talk about Peterson’s solo album “Tracks”, recorded by Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer in 1970. This is Hercules at his mightiest and most tender. The swing in “Give Me The Simple Life” will drive you to dance; the harmonic richness of Thad Jones’ “A Child is Born” will break your heart; and the sheer virtuosity of the stride-style playing in “A Little Jazz Exercise” (Peterson’s only original on the album) will astound. But before you run off to buy these albums check out the links below. Start with Oscar Peterson’s performance of his own piece “Cakewalk”, to be found at the link at the bottom of this page. Please, listen to/watch the whole thing because you’ll want to see/hear his stride solo near the end of the cut. Then check out the link immediately below, from the Dick Cavett Show, broadcast in 1979. PRICELESS.

Oscar; Hercules; whomever. Hats off to this beautiful man and brilliant pianist.