Thursday, December 27, 2007

Oscar Peterson: In Memoriam III

My most embarrassing jazz moment was when Herb Ellis was playing St. Louis, when my understanding of jazz was shallow(er), when Joe Pass was the newest and hottest guitarist around, playing his remarkable Virtuoso and playing duets with Herb Ellis. And during the break, in the two minutes I had with Herb, all I could do was ask about Joe Pass.

I just didn’t understand. And I still didn’t for thirty years when it occurred to me that after Herb Ellis left the Trio and Oscar replaced Herb with magnificent drummers, something was missing. Oscar’s full powers, I have heard and read comments, were in the 1950s. Not really. Oscar’s best trio was in the fifties—because of Herb Ellis. Herb held and played the guitar, but he was really playing very subtle drums—a drumming so minimalist and perfect that a drum set, no matter who played it, would be too much. And Herb’s fine-spun rhythm gave Oscar all of the room needed to create swing and pace no humans have been able to match. Herb Ellis and Ray Brown were the Lub to Oscar Peterson’s Dub—they were one heart.

There is an interesting book entitled “The Heart’s Code”, which, in a minor illustration of its major theme, mentions that the heart generates something like 10 times the energy as the brain, and somehow (another minor theme) it is also able to process and create information in a way that surpasses the brain. To any musician, this isn’t surprising, and thank you biologists for saying it 70 years after Louis Armstrong clearly demonstrated it and Oscar Peterson refined it into its purest form.

Our problem, and it is indeed a problem, is to keep Oscar’s passing from being not only the day the music was fully diminished, but to prevent our inner music, the power of the heart, from dying along with him.

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