Sunday, December 30, 2007

Oscar Peterson: In Memoriam IV

So if you had to guess which pianist Oscar Peterson felt the most affection, Count Basie wouldn’t be near the top, unless you do your due-diligence and read. But if all you had to go by was style, what you heard on recordings, then not Basie. Certainly, Art Tatum, perhaps Tommy Flanagan, Bud Powell, even Duke Ellington for the richness of his harmonies, but Basie? Count Two-Note? No way.

Way. You can see it in their duets. I’d like to try to get inside Oscar’s mind, pure speculation here, and see if we can find something to explain this affinity and high admiration.

We know that Oscar Peterson, from all accounts was a humble man, meaning he didn’t think of himself as the Greatest Jazz Pianist or Greatest Pianist Period, he didn’t get up in the morning, donning his cape and grabbing his dress cane to majestically walk to the bathroom. His first person pronoun was truly lower case, not pretentious lower case like a certain poet who will remain Nameless. “i wonder how Ray’s doing? How’s Herb? Call home? i need to take another look at tonight’s songs.” He didn’t do a very typical artist’s internal syntax, mentioning his name as an appositive—I, Pablo Picasso, feel the need for some strong coffee and sex with a young woman, yes that is what I, Pablo Picasso, feel. Nor did he do the professional athlete third person—I’ll tell you what Jim Kelly thinks, Jim Kelly doesn’t care what the press writes about Jim Kelly because Jim Kelly knows in his heart that Jim Kelly left it all on the field today, and you guys can just go back out with your flashlights back on to the field and find little bits of Jim Kelly to know that Jim Kelly is telling the truth right now.

Perhaps it was the quietness of Basie’s playing that appealed to, when away from the piano, a very quiet man. Or perhaps it was the majestic Basie conception. Those few notes that could take up four to eight bars, in Basie’s mind, were not surrounded by rests, were not simply whole notes tied. Basie heard his notes in context of that rhythm section, he heard big chords played by his horns, resting on that rhythm section, each note he played was surrounded by that that band, that had more swing, played tighter, that had the most precise sense of time, than any other band. In that way, Basie and Peterson were musical twins.

There was a time when jazz was the American music, before Rock, before the British invasion, before Hip Hop. It has since dropped off of the charts, literally. I remember driving in the car, listening to some AM news program in LA and hearing the news that Billboard would no longer keep track of jazz. As a musical category, it was gone. There was still the top of the Country Charts, top of the Rock Charts, top of the Pop Charts, top of the R&B Charts, but no more Jazz Charts, jazz sales were too low. It wasn’t worth the time, and it would be an embarrassment to jazz musicians. It was over. People were listening to George Winston, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock’s electric music--that generation. And as that generation aged, they seemed to want to tackle the standards, the Great American Songbook. Their albums were, Blank Blank Plays Standards, Standards by So and So. And something was missing. Still is.

I think it’s the interplay, that musicians now hear only their part, want to play only their part, and figure that it will somehow come together if they play correctly—mind you so many musicians have been graded, literally, like taking math and grammar tests, so their Skinnerian conditioned idea of correct has little to do with swing or even of improvising, responding to the moment. I knew a guitarist who told me, and he graduated from a prestigious music school (of course), that he literally wrote out his solos in advance, and would literally write out his transitions between chords. So the professors can talk all day about interplay, but it doesn’t come through since each individual is receiving a grade. The words getting kicked in ass by the need for accreditation.

Which brings us to genuine interplay, which Basie understood, which Oscar Peterson understood. Herb Ellis played guitar, but in essence played the drums; Freddie Greene played guitar, but doubled rhythmically, enhanced really, the high hat. With Basie, the bassist teamed with the ride cymbal and snare, with Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown teamed with the ride cymbal and snare, also known as Oscar’s left hand—but unlike the Basie band, the smallness of the trio, and sometimes trio and guest, allowed for the moment, allowed for each musician to play beyond himself. I suspect if I had any sense, general as well as historical, when I met Herb Ellis, and asked him how he kept up with Oscar, he might very well have said, ‘to tell you the truth, I don’t know’.

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