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Music Review: Oscar Peterson – Unmistakable

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However Sony Masterworks and Zenph Sound Innovations managed to do it–and I’ll do my best to try to explain it–the release of Unmistakable, a collection of what they are calling “re-performances” by deceased jazz piano virtuoso Oscar Peterson, has produced some remarkably fine music. The great Peterson died in December 2007 at the age of 82 after a long, productive career, so while the album makes use of some of his unreleased recordings made in the 70s and 80s, it is not Peterson who is doing the “re-performing.” What we have here results from the application of modern technology to artistic innovation, and if this is any example of what the technology is capable of, there will be a lot more coming.

Those readers only interested in good music played brilliantly and not much concerned with how it was recorded, and those who think the whole thing is just too spooky, can skip ahead to the next paragraph. According to the Zenph publicity, the company “uses computer software to transform recorded music back into live performances, replicating what was originally played but with vastly improved sound quality.” They start with video recordings as well as some privately recorded performances. Then as their website describes it,

we transform musical performance into data and then render it into sound, which can be used in completely new ways. Our proprietary platform expresses musical performance as malleable data. Rendered from this data, audio content is liberated from “frozen” recordings—creating immersive and interactive capabilities comparable to those of high-resolution computer graphics.

I leave it to you to decipher what that may mean.

What you see if you are in the room with the piano is the various keys moving as if being struck by invisible fingers. What you hear is some very fine music. The piano is programmed to play the particular piece just as it was played by the original performer. . Zenph has already used this technology to create re-performances by Rachmaninoff, Glenn Gould, and jazz legend Art Tatum. Of course, exactly how this is accomplished is still Zenph’s little proprietary secret Had the technology existed back in the day, we could have re-performances of Mozart, Beethoven or Franz Liszt.

At any rate, while Peterson was still alive back in 2007, representatives of the company met with him to show him how their system worked. At the time they used the recorded re-performances of Peterson’s idol, Art Tatum, to let him hear what their process sounded like, and “hearing his hero playing live again after all the ensuing years brought Peterson to tears.” It impressed him enough that he spent the afternoon working with the team from the company and listening to some re-performances of his own playing.

After Peterson’s death, his wife helped with the selection of songs for this album. Of all the material made available to the team, they selected performances from two different concerts: a mid 70s concert at the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, NY, and a 1980s concert from Munich. They also used a performance from the CBC TV series Oscar Peterson and Friends. The actual recording contains 16 re-performances, eight in stereo and the same eight repeated in binaural stereo for earphones. It is as beautiful a recording of solo piano jazz as you are likely to hear.

The songs are all classics. The album begins with “Body and Soul” and a signature speeding romp through “Back Home Again in Indiana.” It ends with the Benny Goodman theme “Goodbye.” In between there is a Duke Ellington medley that starts with “Take the A Train” and includes “In a Sentimental Mood,” “C Jam Blues,” “Lady of the Lavender Mist,” and “Satin Doll,” among others. Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” Anthony Newly and Leslie Bricusse’s “Who Can I Turn To,” Victor Young’s “When I Fall in Love,” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” round out a very strong album.

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About Jack Goodstein