If a jazz musician can be described as too talented or too prolific, then that's what jazz critics through the years have been willing to say about Oscar Peterson, who died just before Christmas. He played too many notes, they say, or he was simply aping his influences and contributing nothing new to jazz, aside from what you'd hear in an excellent cocktail pianist. (After all, most of the great stride players of the early 20th century were long gone, and Art Tatum had already perfected the art of highly accomplished piano technique.) They say he recorded too much, in too many different settings, and wore his talents too thinly.
This piece doesn't pretend to be an appreciation of Oscar Peterson's complete career, his anchoring of the Verve label during the '50s and '60s with his long, long list of credits and supporting work, his position at the helm of one of the greatest trios in history (with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis), his status as one of the most accomplished pianists of his generation, or his latter-day role as the elder statesman and great teacher of jazz piano. There's been enough of that already.
No, instead of talking technique and gathering great examples from his discography to illustrate his genius -- that's what Allmusic.com is all about, anyway -- here the focus is on one of his most unlikely settings, the Motions & Emotions LP.
How's this for unlikely? First of all, the record is often overlooked by Peterson fans -- so overlooked that it's not even reviewed by AMG (yet!). Unlikelier still, it features Peterson recorded in 1969 in the German village of Villingen by Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer and his MPS label (although that catalogue has long been sought-after by jazz fans and DJs alike). The record also features some tremendously unlikely choices for good material: a raft of the pop standards of the day that descends as far as "Sunny" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "This Guy's in Love with You." The accompaniment consists of the most serene set of strings and percussion that you'll hear on any record, though they come courtesy of maestro Claus Ogerman, whose charts for Sinatra and Jobim made him one of the most sublime arrangers of strings in jazz. If most strings are syrup, these are pure heaven.
By the Time I Get to Phoenix
The opener is "Sally's Tomato," a tune by Henry Mancini that shows Peterson utterly relaxed, dispensing short bursts of notes at times but then lingering on others -- always using the lightest and most caressing of touches. (There's a reason for the title Motions & Emotions.) Jobim's "Wave" is the best track on the record, Ogerman's strings beginning the song at a glacial pace that permits Peterson to float lightly over the top. At times, it sounds like he's putting only enough pressure on the keys to make them sound -- any less would be silent. (But, of course, the effect is magnificent.) Even the pop songs are well-done; "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" sounds calm and meditative, and the pair of Beatles songs near the end yield new musical insights even into old warhorses like "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby."
Obviously, this isn't the record to use as ammunition against any jazz purists, but it's a beautiful album, and a great entry point into Peterson's discography for anyone who doesn't hold the preconceived notions that can make jazz such an intimidating music to follow. The record is utterly of its time, in a soft-focus way that'll remind those of a certain age of Love Story or The Mary Tyler Moore Show (there's even a very Peterson-like flourish of piano during the end-credits theme of the latter).