Oscar Peterson Plays Porgy & Bess

Epitomizing.

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.

Not once.

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

Titles:
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

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

  1. thank you.

    you described my own feelings about this recording very well. I looked for something about this album in the Internet and found your webpage. My old LP is scratched so I try to look for the CD you write about. Where can I find it?

    Reply

  2. Carl,

    you caught me while I was working on my site. Welcome!

    A quick look around my usual shops only unearthed that this CD has been discontinued and seems to be available as a download album from the various Amazon sites only.

    I found one used copy via Amazon.fr at 18 Euro (there’s even one at above 90 Euro!), but have no idea if that path is useful to you.

    It is a pity this recording isn’t available anymore. I remember that when I bought it quite a while ago, there were still a few rather pricey copies here or there.

    I’ve also heard that there is supposed to be a new “Oscar Peterson Songbooks” boxed set coming out from Verve soon, but I haven’t investigated that one yet at all. If they do the same thing they did with some of the single remasters, they’ll include both the drumless trio and the one I’m talking about here as Peterson recorded a lot of the songbook material with both. I’m just not aware that this was the case with “Plays Porgy & Bess”. I don’t think so.

    Carl, subscribe to this thread and I’ll post here if I unearth an item or hear more about that competitively-priced boxed set (at around $40, I believe).

    Volkher

    Reply

  3. thank you Volkher. I read other posts on livingwithmusic and we like the same music very much. I subscribed to this post and read more. Thank you again. My english is not so good. I apologise.

    Reply

  4. No problem, Carl. Welcome aboard. Don’t worry about the English. I can understand everything you say, easily. 🙂

    I can see from my my stats that you are from Indonesia? Is that true? If yes, it just proves that “Jazz” is a universal language. 🙂

    I’m just trying out a new stats package and can already see that Asia is further up on my visitors list than I had previously thought (or known). So is Africa, actually. I have only recently started tracking who comes from where.

    For everyone else who is reading along here: The new stats package tells me that quite a few readers are “regular customers”, although they don’t comment much, and the United States (#1), the UK (#2), France (#3), Germany (#4) and Australia (#5) are the countries taking up the top spot. The package also tells me that whereas there are some sites that send visitors this way, quite a few front-page results of my posts on the various Google sites around the globe are sending the highest number of visitors here.

    Those are usually looking for “Jazz in Paris”, “LP/CD/DVD storage”, “Universal deluxe Edition”, “Oscar Peterson” and many more things. I can see that my plan is coming true, helping provide information for people around the globe instead of actively developing a constant readership (for that I don’t and won’t post regularly enough).

    I’m happy I decided to keep this site alive. The stats make me feel good.

    Carl, sorry for hijacking my own post. 🙂

    Don’t be a stranger!

    Reply

  5. Yess, Indonesia. I also travel and work in many countries. I am a government official and help organise many concerts and theatre plays. I like jazz very much and Oscar Peterson. I help organise his concerts. Carl is not real name. It is an internet name and is easier. 🙂 I need different writing for my name. 🙂

    I read ‘London House Sessions’ here and have a question. Who is Mr. van Kampen? He has interesting text about that.

    I have to work now.
    cu

    Reply

  6. Carl,

    glad to hear my stats package works and I’m happy you are/were involved in organizing jazz concerts and other cultural events. I try to do the same thing here in my spare time (on a much smaller scale) and it offers me the relaxation I need next to my day job.

    Arnold van Kampen?

    Carl, to be honest, I don’t know much about him aside from the fact that he a) knows a lot more than most people about Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown (and probably a lot more than that), b) that he is an outspoken man (which I like) about things he knows more about, and c) is someone I checked-out via some friends to make sure he is who he is.

    On top of that, of course, I also know his name because he is a known name in jazz criticism in Europe (and/or beyond), a writer and, so I’ve heard, a radio personality. I also know that he has compiled an Oscar Peterson discography that I would love to see in print!

    I will actually use your comment here to practically force him into an interview.
    Now.
    Because I have the time.

    🙂

    Reply

  7. There’s some very perceptive comments here about the work of Oscar Peterson, and being a great enthusiast myself, I can empathise with what has been said. However, it is all very frustrating when you talk about his ‘Verve’ album ‘Porgy and Bess’

    What is it about this album? Oscar has always fared well when it comes to the availability of his recordings, but this one always seems to get passed over. As an LP it wasn’t as easy to get, unlike most of his other albums, and the CD has become scarce too. You can occasionally see it, but as an obscurity, it usually comes at a very high price.

    I have the LP, but is was acquired second hand, and not in the best of condition, so a CD replacement at a sensible price would be the answer. One can only hope that this session will eventually be given the widespread availabilty and recognition that it deserves.

    Reply

  8. Ken,

    thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I’ve been away from this site all too long, but personal matters simply don’t allow me to add new posts right now. For all the others “jumping onto this comment” as a sign of life from me … yes, there’s more coming … don’t worry. I bought an unbelievable amount of stuff these past weeks and months (probably as compensation for personal matters bearing down on me) and lots of writing is hovering about in the “off” somewhere.

    Ken, I heartily agree with you. I’m always amazed at all the whining and screeching the music industry is so good at and when it comes down to important reissues, … nothing happens. In this case, for example, I do believe there are plenty of people out there ready to leap at the chance of getting a copy below $20/Euro 20, but there just aren’t any to be had (as of right now, a quick check around all the Amazon sites only turned up copies from $22 to around $40).

    Mind you, I do think this release is worth the money being asked for it, but I’m personally sick and tired of the umpteenth Miles Davis/John Coltrane/whatnot reissue of reissues or the endless runs of various “updates” which usually turn out to be sonic “downgrades” while some sessions I’ve continuously checked for (another is Dave Brubeck’s “Gone with the Wind”, which is my fave Brubeck session) remain at a constant premium … sometimes for years. Sucks, to be quite blunt. I currently have a list of around 90 CDs I check on once a month and not one has moved into an affordable category. Quite to the contrary, they increase in price steadily.

    After many years of cynical observation, I also believe that it’s become and almost Utopian thought to think that the music industry will (re)issue more than a trickle of what they are sitting on. The times they are a’ changin’, and everyone seems to be retreating to making older stuff available in (unfortunately) lossy download formats, leaving the initiative to reissue important sessions in CD format to Spanish or other pirate labels (usually with inaccurate and horrible liner notes) or simply ignoring the treasures they have.

    And then we have stuff like the (incomplete) “Complete Miles Davis box” (or whatever it’s called) coming out? Who the hell needs that? The three people who don’t have enough Miles Davis yet? Who the heck is the target audience for that? And all of that after they have already reissued every bodily noise Miles committed to tape … a minimum of seven times over?

    Still, there’s hope. They did release the Oscar Peterson Songbooks box in Canada and, just recently, those coveted duo sessions (which I hope are on the way to me as I write this), the Fitzgerald in Hollywood live sessions, the last Coltrane box (yep, I was a member of the target audience for that one), plus a whole bunch of other sessions (just bought myself the Ingfried Hoffmann “Hoffmann’s Hammond Tales”; yep, I didn’t know much about him either before I popped it into my player today), etc.

    Bizarre, really. There’s this really obscure stuff popping up here and there, which I enjoy getting hold of time and again, and some seminal material like Peterson’s “Porgy & Bess” session remains deep down in some (lime) vault.

    But then again, who ever said that the bigwigs at the major music labels were anything but 300-pound monkeys?

    ‘T sure wasn’t me.

    🙂

    Reply

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