Oscar Peterson Plays the Jerome Kern Songbook

Oscar Peterson / Oscar Peterson Trio

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Oscar Peterson Plays the Jerome Kern Songbook Review

by Michael G. Nastos

Jerome Kern's stage tunes -- going back to the late '20s with the acclaimed presentation Show Boat -- right up to the '40s, will forever be at the core of quintessential American popular songs that hold a dear place in the heart of all straight-ahead jazz performers. Oscar Peterson's immortal trio with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen play Kern's themes expertly, with no small degree of interpretation, and a clever angle on these well-worn songs that only Peterson can self-identify with his genius mindset. The title should be more accurately "The Jerome Kern & Friends Songbook," as he always co-wrote with such notables as Oscar Hammerstein II, Otto Harbach, Ira Gershwin, and Dorothy Fields, but these are all instrumental versions of his priceless musical scores and are immediately familiar without lyrics. From the actual Show Boat set list, "Ol' Man River" has endured the longest, and here it rumbles with Thigpen's incredible drums, rambles via Peterson, then has the pianist and bassist in cross talk with space. "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" is a tender ballad, slowly unfolding as the chiming chords of Peterson's reflect a melodic comparison of "Stairway to the Stars." The third Show Boat revision, "Bill," is so downplayed and minimal that it is reduced to a steamy crawl. Most astute listeners will easily recognize the perky and hopped up "I Won't Dance" due to Thigpen's expert brush work, while Peterson changes up the harmonic insides of the tune and speeds along on a death-defying solo. "The Song Is You" stops and starts fearlessly then jams into fourth gear immediately, "The Way You Look Tonight" is standard, reliable fare remade in Peterson's image with no strain, and his girthy chords block out "A Fine Romance." There's always a regal side to the pianist in his ability to perceptively tone down his wilder notions; the effortless, serene, and supremely confident take of "Long Ago," a British-styled "Lovely to Look at You," and purely tender "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" act as final answer evidence. Of the many recordings this great jazz trio made, this is one of the top three, and even though it clocks in at under thirty five minutes with no alternate takes. It remains a monument to the Peterson trio's timeless quality, and is a fitting tribute to Jerome Kern's everlasting genius as one of the true great American popular songwriters.

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