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Reviewers: Tony Augarde [Editor], Steve Arloff, Nick Barnard, Pierre Giroux, Don Mather, Glyn Pursglove, George Stacy, Sam Webster, Jonathan Woolf



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OSCAR PETERSON TRIO

Live at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival

Poll Winners Records PWR 27211

 

 


1. Falling in Love with Love
2. How About You?
3. Flamingo
4. Swinging on a Star
5. Noreen's Nocturne
6. Gypsy in My Soul
7. How High the Moon
8. Love You Madly
9. 52nd Street Theme
10. Nuages
11. Daisy's Dream

Oscar Peterson - Piano
Ray Brown - Bass
Herb Ellis - Guitar

 

You don't know what you've got until it's gone. Some years ago, when I was presenting a jazz programme on radio, someone requested a track from Oscar Peterson's famous concert at the 1956 Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Ontario. Try as I might, I couldn't find a copy of the album because it had been deleted from the catalogue. Now it is back, thanks to this series of reissues which makes available some of the highest-praised jazz albums ever recorded. It should always be available as it is one of the finest recordings that this trio ever made during its existence in the mid-fifties.

Peterson, Brown and Ellis had already worked together as a trio since 1953 and their playing was finely honed without ever being routine. One thing that strikes me particularly about the music here is the group's awareness of the value of tension-and-release. There is a noticeable shift of gears after Ray Brown or Herb Ellis has done a solo and the trio chugs off into that superbly swinging blend of sparkling piano backed by unstoppable bass and drums. There is a sudden shift from the voice of a single musician to a trio playing together as one. It is a united sound which I have never heard from any other piano trio, and it never fails to lift the spirit.

There is also contrast in the choice of tunes, moving between tender ballads and up-tempo excursions. For instance, the breakneck Swinging on a Star is followed by the more pensive (but still swinging) Noreen's Nocturne. The piano-guitar-bass line-up is clearly modelled on those of Nat "King" Cole and Art Tatum - who were both idols of Peterson's. Oscar borrows the idea of interspersing pure improvisation with pre-arranged passages which impart structure to the tunes. But the Peterson trio cannot be described as derivative, since it was so unique - and Oscar varies the sound by distributing the duties on each song diversely between the three members.

Peterson gives his sidemen plenty of solo space. Ray Brown's intonation is dubious in his arco solo on Flamingo but plucked bass solos like those on How About You? and How High the Moon are impeccably tuneful and logical. Herb Ellis also provides some great solos, and his work as a rhythm guitarist is just right to assist the trio's drive. Herb knew that the guitar as a rhythm instrument is best used to play simple rhythmic chords, rather than trying to decorate the music with single lines.

Still, the undoubted star of the trio is Oscar Peterson, with his reliable swing, faultless technique and the ability to generate excitement and then raise it to ever higher levels. A good example of this is Love You Madly, where the trio maintains a moderate tempo until Oscar raises the stakes with one of those spine-tingling two-handed rolls of his. His brilliance is on display throughout this album. Just sample a track like Gypsy in My Soul and wonder at its energy and technical assurance.

The original LP consisted of the first nine tracks, which were recorded on the second night of the trio's two-night appearance at Stratford. The last two are Django Reinhardt's Nuages, which features Herb Ellis, and Daisy's Dream, a composition by Peterson which he describes as "a miniature jazz suite". It certainly fits this description, as it lasts for 12 minutes and passes through various sections representing different dance styles. Oscar says it was inspired by John Lewis, and it has some of the baroque flavour of some of Lewis's compositions for the Modern Jazz Quartet. It opens with a stately semi-classical piece, then moves through a waltz into a jazzier phase (with overtones of Bach) which eventually becomes the fully-fledged jazz trio we know and love, steaming ahead. The piece returns to elegant counterpoint before its dreamy close.

There are only three flaws to this CD, although they can be distracting. Two of them come from Peterson himself: his tapping foot and his frequent habit of singing (almost growling) along with his own improvisation. The third annoyance is the familiar one of the audience clapping after virtually every solo, obscuring the start of the next musician's solo. It's a habit I hate, especially as it seems to have become obligatory for jazz audiences, even though it is seldom heard in the "serious" concert hall. Worst of all is when the audience applauds in the wrong place, as in Swinging on a Star - before Ray Brown has finished swapping eights with Herb Ellis. And why do some audience members whistle so ear-piercingly instead of applauding?

These grouches aside, this is an album for every serious admirer of jazz. In the original sleeve-notes, Peterson wrote: "I honestly believe that this recording of the Trio in our best to date". And who can argue with the master?

Tony Augarde



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