You know it when you see it (to quote the infamous Justice Potter) and you get a lot of it around here. If I like something, I tell you so, and I don’t hold back on the verbiage to get my point across. So, should we give it another go?
Oscar Peterson, who in his lifetime had all too often been shunned by jazz critics and fans alike because of his supposed technical showmanship and supposed repetitive use of “set pieces” or clichés (take your pick), has an impressive oeuvre to his name. I have been known to strongly disagree with his detractors time and again and I’ve written the Internet thin, under various monikers, up in arms against this groundswell that has so far proven to be insurmountable in certain circles, and I don’t really care if I was successful. I just think it is important to raise my voice here and there to at least make my point of view known.
Yes, I’m not musically knowledgeable enough to dissect the arrangements, the comping, soloing or every single note and its placement; I’m someone who is lead mostly by his gut feeling and by the emotional response a musician or a single piece of music elicits. That’s it, really. I know of my shortcomings and always readily admit that others know more, but I also cannot ignore the uplifting effect a lot of Oscar Peterson’s work has had on me, time and again. I also believe that I’ve heard enough music to tell you something about what I like and what has survived the many convoluted twists and turns of my musical life and experience, all with a more discerning stance, but in the end it’s just instinct, which has been shaped by decades of listening to music. Nothing else. Just that.
And it is that gut feeling, the emotional response and the sheer persistence of the recordings that makes me grab for two Oscar Peterson sessions time and again. The first one is the whole run of the “London House Sessions” I’ve written about here before, but the second one has risen to my very top spot and has not been inside of my shelf system since I’ve gotten it.
If you have at all been reading along here regularly, you know that I keep some recent purchases and favorites out of my shelf system, lying around, and with so many thousands of CDs I have it is a tremendous feat for one single CD to stay either next to my main CD player in the living room or any other playing device around my house. The one I’m going to tell you about today is one that – and friends have made fun of me because of it – is actually transported to any room I work, sleep or live in, plus the kitchen, where menial chores have to be performed. I’m not kidding when I say that since that one single CD has entered my place, it hasn’t been further than two meters away from me in case I wanted to give it a spin.
Actually, it has by now become the most-played CD around here.
I have around 80 CDs covering – sadly enough – only a fraction of Oscar Peterson’s work. I also have some digital files of stuff not yet/not any more available and I have a handful or two of LPs. I have a lot of Oscar Peterson.
To finally get to the point, “Oscar Peterson Plays Porgy & Bess” is my favorite Oscar Peterson recording today.
I do believe that many of you who know Oscar Peterson might beg to differ, but if you know me well enough, you should also know I don’t care (but do invite your dissenting opinion).
“Oscar Peterson Plays Porgy & Bess” was recorded by the Oscar Peterson Trio on October 12th, 1959 in Los Angeles and was produced by Norman Granz, a man whom Oscar Peterson has cited time and again as a/the major force in his career, someone who created settings for the trio to excel in.
I have also often stated that whereas many people believe the drumless trio prior to the one with Ed Thigpen to have been the highpoint of his career, I’m the Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen aficionado … not only because I had the chance to have some lessons with Thigpen when I was young, inexperienced and stupid.
As the London House Sessions had shown me prior to my encounter with the “Porgy & Bess” session, Oscar Peterson was simply smokin’ after Ed Thigpen had joined up and the “London House Sessions” I talked about elsewhere had already shown me an Oscar Peterson at ease and in a setting with excellent musicians that got the best out of him, Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen creating the canvas on which Peterson could shine. To me, personally, it sounds and seems as if Brown and Thigpen gave Peterson that extra inch of freedom and security to go beyond what he had done before; Peterson knew he could rely on these two at any given moment not only to support what he was about to create, but to reign him in as well.
I have a DVD which I watch regularly as well, “Oscar Peterson Live in ’63, ’64 & ’65” (Jazz Icons, 2008) which features three concerts of the trio in question from a) Sweden (’63), b) Denmark (’64) and c) Finland (’65). I don’t know how many times I’ve zeroed in on the interaction between these three stellar musicians, but if you do that too, you will see the both sublime and effortless interplay between musicians who knew each other down to a “t” musically. The body language, the quick glances, the smiles and the acknowledging nods that are bounced back and forth were also picked up by the audience and pushed the three even further.
A lot of the work that this latter trio produced was, in my book, pure magic, much the same way that “Oscar Peterson Trio at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival” (1956) had been a highpoint of the “other” trio.
So, what about “Oscar Peterson Plays Porgy & Bess”?
I have no idea why, but it entered my life relatively late and was an addition to my Oscar Peterson collection that happened by chance. I once hit some sort of “grading” system of Oscar Peterson recording sessions, unreliable as those always prove to be, ordered the list by “stars” awarded and noticed that one of the recordings high up on that resulting list was one I simply hadn’t even heard once.
So, as is my usual mode d’emploi, I set out to unearth a (rather pricey) copy and hit that “Buy Me Now!” button.
Then I waited almost six weeks as the 1993 Verve CD I had chosen had to travel all the way from one jazz fan in southern Japan to another one, me, in south-western Germany.
Let me get one more thing out of the way: Verve has had a knack for remastering perfectly good recordings into an aural insult years after the first releases appeared at the dawn of the CD-age. I have no idea (and I’m not about to check) if that has since been the case with this CD, but the sound of this recording in its 1993 (first?) incarnation is stunningly good. Without going into detail, this very recording also added to my depression in regard to having bought many Verve remasters when I fleshed-out my collection, bypassing the Verve originals. I learned too late in my collecting career that I should have gone for many of the original releases. This CD proves it. The sonics are – on a good stereo – perfect! No matter who chimes in here to the contrary, I WILL counter that opinion. This recording session sounds as good as any of the very best recordings I have in my collection … and, unfortunately, those are far and few between.
What’s best here is that this session shows the trio as an ensemble all the way through and it makes a serious attempt, unknowingly so, to prove doubters wrong in regard to their criticism of Peterson. I don’t often say that something is perfect, well knowing that a statement like that will always be challenged, but in this case I’ll say it flat-out: To my ears, to my sentiments, to my emotional world this is the one single recording session that I pull out when people ask me what the Oscar Peterson Trio with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen was all about.
Yes, it’s that good.
You will find some of those flourishes some detractors are often known to criticize, but as a whole, this is a very condensed and highly sensitive session with musicians playing together as tightly as possible and engraving material known by just about anyone with their own voice.
I recall the infamous “All Music Guide” stating something to the effect that this trio’s version of “Summertime” couldn’t really hold a candle to Miles Davis’ and Bill Evan’s version of same. All I can say is “Really?” And, please allow me to be so blunt, “who gives a damn?” It was never intended to do so. If you want to compare apples and oranges, be my guest, but I won’t march in step. I have a lot (!) of Bill Evans’ recordings and I love them equally much, but I would not dare to compare him to Peterson. Never. The sentiment apparent in both personalities and styles is just too different to warrant comparison.
I look at this session from an Oscar Peterson fan’s point of view and everything just jells, from Ray Brown’s tasty bass intro on “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin'” to the perfectly mellow final notes of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”.
If it is true that the arrangements for all the tunes were put together on the spot in the studio, as is supposedly true for the rest of the composers series the trio recorded under Granz’s supervision, it goes to show the level of perfection Peterson, Brown and Thigpen had reached after having spent a comparatively short time together. The rhythm section couldn’t be tighter than is on display here and there isn’t a spot on this session that isn’t among Ray Brown’s and Ed Thigpen’s best work. Oscar Peterson simply lives off and thrives on that sometimes sublime, at times almost humorous and throughout perfect accompaniment.
Each tune is a highlight, but if you want to hear that interplay I talked about, check out “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York” which features Ed Thigpen’s excellent brush and cymbal work; Ray Brown gets one of his rare solos and there are one-bar exchanges between Peterson and Thigpen, to boot, which are just tremendous fun.
If you want more of Ed Thigpen’s smokin’ brush work, check the beginning of “Oh Lawd, I’m on My Way”, if you want to hear the epitome of ensemble playing, carefully listen to the perfection and seeming ease of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” or, of course, “Summertime”, Peterson’s bluesy take on a classic.
You know, although this recording is perfect, one might want to have more than the mere 40 minutes of it presented here, but the arrangement of the tunes, including Oscar’s (and Ray’s) segueing into “Oh Lawd, I’m on My Way” via an “interlude” with “Oh Dey’s So Fresh and Fine (Strawberry Woman)” is perfect and complete. I have often been know to jump on so-called “Complete” editions of sessions and have no idea if there are any takes or whatever that never made it into the final release (probably) but already now I would encourage anyone to stay away from such a release, should it ever become available, with a changed track order or various takes inserted. This session has to be heard as a whole the way it was originally sequenced here.
It’s about as close as you can come to a completed circle, from first note to last note.
Beg, steal … and borrow twice.
Then keep every copy.
And, remember, you heard it here first.
Artist(s): The Oscar Peterson Trio
Title: Oscar Peterson Plays Porgy & Bess
Release Date(s): 1959/1993
This CD: Verve 519 807-2
Copyright/Production: Polygram Records, Inc. 1993
01: I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ (06:22)
02: I Wants to Stay Here (a.k.a. “I Loves You Porgy”) (06:18)
03: Summertime (03:47)
04: Oh Dey’s So Fresh and Fine (Strawberry Woman) (00:52)
05: Oh Lawd, I’m on My Way (02:32)
06: It Ain’t Necessarily So (03:58)
07: There’s A Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York (07:09)
08: Oh Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess? (04:53)
09: Here Come de Honey Man (01:08)
10: Bess, You Is My Woman Now (03:29)
Personnel: Oscar Peterson (piano), Ray Brown (bass), Ed Thigpen (drums)
Recording Date: October 12, 1959
City: Los Angeles
Original Recording Produced by: Norman Granz
Cover Art: David Stone Martin
Original Notes (LP): Lawrence D. Stewart
Special Thanks to: William ‘Red’ Carraro, Richard Seidel and the staff at PolyGram Studios
Reissue Supervision: Michael Lang
Reissue Liner Notes: Benny Green (June 1993)
Researched and Restored by: Phil Schaap
Mastered by: Suha Gur at PolyGram Studios
Notes Edited by: Peter Pullman
Additional Production Assistance: Matt Brown, Aric Lach Morrison, Jon Schapiro
Art Designed and Directed by: David Lau
Design Coordinated by: Nausica Loukakos