Alas. This column should have been my much-promised and –delayed “Best of 2007” post, which I’ve hyped endlessly and shamelessly in the comments on fellow music writers’ articles. (Sorry, guys.)
And yet, and yet. Instead I must pause to remark how the cruel fates have taken yet another great from us - via kidney failure at the age of 82 - in the year that’s already cost the world Michael Brecker, Andrew Hill, Rod Poole, Art Davis, Herb Pomeroy, Joe Zawinul, Donald Ayler, Cecil Payne, Frank Morgan, and the titanic Max Roach. Oh, Oscar Peterson – why, as Kurt Cobain’s mother asked, did you have to go and join that stupid club?
Often perceived as the sole Canadian contribution to the jazz pantheon, Peterson was, of course, one of the greatest piano virtuosi in the history of the instrument, rivaled only by Art Tatum as the greatest pianist in jazz history. It seems almost cruel to lump Peterson yet again with Tatum, one of his two idols (Nat “King” Cole being the other) and the man with whom he was and will be forever compared. They even shared many of the same criticisms: their swing was old-fashioned; their musical imaginations too narrow (Tatum “had no melodic sense,” Peterson was “harmonically dim”); and, of course, the Amadeus complaint: “Too many notes, Majesty.” They also share the claim to that “Greatest” title, and the jazz world is generally split over whether Tatum or Peterson receives the throne.
Enough of that. It’s a contest of minutia, and trying too hard to make the ultimate judgment means parsing each player to the extent that we forget to enjoy either. Let’s forget for a moment about what he might arguably have been and talk instead about what Peterson definitely was.
He was a soloist of stupefying talent and skill. Those “too many notes” he played were all too often done in the context of careening glissandos that defy the brain’s ability to process them, and swing so vicious that it makes the room spin. Peterson’s 1968 version of Ellington’s “Perdido,” to name but one example, is like taking your ears on an amusement park ride, full as it is of sudden drops and wild course changes.