Arriving on DVD September 30, like a gift from the Gods of music, Jazz Icons: Oscar Peterson Live In '63, '64, &'65 is one of seven new releases in the Jazz Icons series.
The legendary pianist left this world less than a year ago (December 23, 2007), and his passing was a great loss. Music fans have reason to celebrate, as this new DVD affords us the opportunity to visit (and revisit as often as one desires) Peterson leading his trio through three magnificent live concerts. The three sets can be viewed separately, or watched straight through for a total running time of 84 minutes. The Jazz Icons series has been referred to as the Criterion Collection of jazz music, and this release lives up to the high praise.
All three sets feature the second great trio of Peterson's career, with Ed Thigpen on drums and the incomparable Ray Brown on bass. Opening the DVD is the shortest set, which lasts 18 minutes. It was taped in a television studio, apparently in front of a live audience (though they are not shown) in Stockholm, Sweden on April 3, 1963. Milt Jackson's "Reunion Blues" kicks it off – a brief rendition featuring short solos from Peterson and Brown.
A very swinging run through of Ellington's "Satin Doll" follows, with Brown's dynamic bass playing steering the trio through this well known standard. Trumpeter Roy Eldridge strolls out for a guest spot in the next tune, George Gershwin's "But Not For Me." Eldridge is nicely showcased, playing an extremely tightly muted trumpet. After a very brief romp through another Gershwin number, "It Ain't Necessarily So," the trio closes with the set's obvious showpiece: "Chicago (That Toddling Town)."
By this point, Peterson is quite literally dripping with sweat and he works up considerably more during this six minute long selection. With both Peterson and Brown smiling broadly, the trio really ignite on this performance. Peterson's solo is especially adventurous. During Brown's effortlessly fluid bass solo, Thigpen uses his bare left hand to add drum embellishments while keeping time on a cymbal with a drumstick in his right hand. After a very brief section of Peterson and Thigpen trading bars (with Ed back to both drumsticks), the final minute and a half kick in at a breathlessly fast tempo for a truly grand finale.
As I have come to expect from Jazz Icons, the video quality is exceptional. The source is 40 year old black-and-white videotape, a format often prone to deterioration. This footage, however, is stunning in its clarity. The audio is no less impressive, providing a clear and full listening experience.
The second, and longest, of these sets happens to be my favorite. Taped on May 2, 1964 in a small club in Denmark, this is a remarkable 38 minutes of live music. Gershwin's "Soon" is the opener, and it cooks at a remarkably fast tempo. A perfect follow-up to the last performance seen in the previous set, Peterson's solo is astonishingly dextrous. I'd say it's a jaw-dropping piece of improvisation, but the best is yet to come.
"On Green Dolphin Street" is the next tune, with a lengthy, dramatic opening section. A little more than halfway through this seven-minute-plus rendition, Peterson drops in a lightning quick solo before returning to a subdued restating of the melody. These three guys really seem connected at an almost psychic level during performances like this. Next is a long blues workout on Milt Jackson's "Bags' Groove," the single greatest showcase of Ray Brown found on this DVD.
His solo is simply mesmerizing. Watching Brown put his whole body into his playing, it's a great chance to see a musician become one with his instrument. The DVD booklet makes specific reference to the way Peterson himself leads the audience in applause at the bass solo's conclusion. It's a standout moment, seeing Peterson putting his own playing on hold to applaud Brown himself.
Leonard Bernstein's "Tonight" is up next, with the tempo back up for this relatively brief performance. This leads into Peterson's long introduction to Ellington's "C Jam Blues" – the single longest piece anywhere on the disc at nine minutes. I'd have to say that Peterson's most exciting and intense soloing occurs during this blues classic. An Oscar Peterson original closes the set, "Hymn To Freedom" in rather majestic fashion. If forced to pick a favorite tune on this DVD, this is the one. A beautiful piece of music, "Hymn To Freedom" climaxes with a heavenly crescendo. Peterson slowly builds his chords until he is coaxing an amazing amount of sound from his piano. Once again, from a technical standpoint the presentation is excellent.
If I'm going to nitpick a little, I can mention there are a few little dropouts in the tape here and there, but that is simply a result of the medium – not the fault of the DVD mastering.
Finally there is a 27 minute set from Helsinki, Finland. The date of taping, in a theater in front of a live audience, was March 23, 1965. This set is largely a showcase for trumpeter Clark Terry. But before Terry appears, Peterson leads the trio through a positively burning rendition of "Yours Is My Heart Alone." Following a florid introduction from Peterson, providing very little warmup time, the rhythm section gets a tough workout. As mentioned in the DVD booklet, Brown even visibly reacts to the intense speed while still expertly keeping up.
Clark Terry then takes the stage, flugelhorn and trumpet both in hand, and the trio launches into "Mack the Knife," still maintaining a brisk tempo. Playing flugelhorn for this number, Terry's solo provides curious evidence that speaks considerably to the visual presentation of this DVD. Is that mist I see emitting from the bell of Terry's horn during some profile shots? I'm not kidding: that's how detailed the picture quality is. Terry's horn is literally steaming during his solo!
Then things slow down a bit, after everyone has worked up quite a sweat (Thigpen is seen toweling off). An agreeably swinging jaunt through Peterson's own "Blues For Smedley" finds Terry switching to trumpet, managing some startlingly voice-like growling before delivering a melodic solo. Ray Brown smiles and adds a boisterous "Wooo!" during Peterson's solo; these guys are clearly having a great time. Possibly the most entertaining segment of this set is during "Blues For Smedley" when Terry trades licks with himself – a trumpet in one hand and a flugelhorn in the other.
A ballad takes the tempo down several more notches, with an elegant version of "Misty." Terry provides a lovely flugelhorn statement of the melody, after which Peterson takes a short but elaborate solo. To close out the set, as well as the disc itself, Clark Terry puts down his horns and takes the mic for "Mumbles." Mumbles is not only Mr. Terry's nickname, but also the name of a popular tune of his in which his comedic scatting takes front and center. It's a fun way to end the show.
Jazz Icons continues to provide valuable historic musical documents, and Jazz Icons: Oscar Peterson Live In '63, '64, &'65 should be considered mandatory viewing for jazz lovers. As I've mentioned more than once, the visual and audio presentation is top-notch. And as usual with this series, the disc is supplemented with an informative 24 page booklet full of biographical information and details pertaining to these specific performances. This DVD is highly recommended and worthy of repeat viewing.