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VIP 14: The MPS Oscar Peterson Solo Recordings Review

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VIP 14
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The MPS Oscar Peterson Solo Recordings
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VIP 14: The MPS Oscar Peterson Solo Recordings Review

My first exposure to real jazz (meaning, not “dance band music” which is thoroughly composed) was How Long Has This Been Going On?, a 1978 Pablo Sarah Vaughan release, produced by Norman Granz, and featuring an Oscar Peterson Quartet, with regular cohort Joe Pass on guitar, long-time Peterson bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Louie Bellson, who occasionally worked with Peterson (Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson being a prime example, also produced by Norman Granz). How Long Has This Been Going On? was, and still is, a stunning tour-de-force of jazz musicians in their latter years, performing with a confidence that only comes with years of experience, performing as much for each other, and for themselves, as for the audience. This level of performance is a rare opportunity where the listener is invited into an intimate space, where telepathic connections exist between the performers. I immediately went looking for other Peterson recordings, but a lot of what I found seemed to be produced for “whitey”, or what the producer thought the huge expanse of middle class America would enjoy. Meh! Recordings like How Long Has This Been Going On? are rare events. It was the first truly great jazz record I heard, the first of many.

Most of Peterson’s ’50s and ’60s output is flashy and technically superb, with great playing, great song choices and great sound, but many releases lack the thoughtfulness and adventure of less compromising players, like Monk, on more “serious” labels, like Blue Note and Prestige. This is on account of his management, and record label, not down to some lack of motivation by Peterson, or the Peterson ensemble.

Jazz does not have to be mentally challenging to be good jazz, and it’s impossible to put into words what makes a performance “good”, but I think it must be thoughtfulness and intensity, rather than technique. I am sometimes tricked into thinking something challenging is good, simply because of its difficulty, but that’s conceit. If musical greatness equates to incredible technique, then Jeff Beck would be truly great, rather than a great technician. Put another way: power hitters sell more tickets than players that hit for average. “61” is more famous than “.406”. You can’t honestly say that A Love Supreme is “better jazz” than Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. They are both thoughtful and intense, but they are from different eras.

As the ’60s progressed, and jazz faded as “popular music”, a few labels continued producing albums for the people still buying jazz, who considered themselves connoisseurs, for the most part. The old customers for “pop jazz” were now buying what we consider “easy listening” these days. There were fewer people that identified with jazz, and most young buyers were into the British Invasion by the time these recordings were made. As major labels like Atlantic and Columbia shifted their focus away from jazz, the small independent labels, especially European labels like ECM in the ’70s, filled the vacuum, and produced arguably the purest jazz since the small independent labels of the ’50s, like Blue Note.

 

On MPS, from Wiki:

“Originally based in Villingen, MPS was founded as the successor to the SABA Label Records by Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, together with Joachim Ernst Berendt, Willy Fruth and Achim Hebgen (who also worked as producers). MPS was the first German label to exclusively release jazz. MPS produced and released recordings by American, European and Japanese jazz artists. Recordings of the Berliner Jazztage, the Donaueschinger Musiktage and the New Jazz Meeting Baden-Baden were also published. Besides its own productions, MPS also licensed and distributed recordings by other companies.

Performers under contract to MPS included Oscar Peterson, Hans Koller, Horst Jankowski, George Duke, Erwin Lehn, Volker Kriegel, Albert Mangelsdorff, Singers Unlimited, Wolfgang Dauner, the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band, Jean-Luc Ponty, Lee Konitz, Charlie Mariano, Alphonse Mouzon, Monty Alexander and Dave Pike. It is worth noting the wide stylistic spectrum, from swing to free jazz, jazz rock and precursors of ethno-jazz.”

The last note on the wide spectrum of styles is especially instructive about MPS. They let the musicians play their music, instead of developing a “house sound”, and forcing everyone to conform. An especially hideous example of this perversion of music are the recordings produced by Chet Atkins at RCA. Consider the Chet Atkins version of Willie Nelson and John Hartford: an over-produced cheesy load of crap. Chet Atkins could play guitar, and that’s it.

So the point I am belaboring is this: MPS presents an authentic version of Peterson, allowing him the freedom to make his musical choices.

 

Volume 1

Action

VIP 15: The MPS Oscar Peterson Solo Recordings Review

 

Ray Brown
Bass
Oscar Peterson
Piano
Ed Thigpen
Drums
Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer
Engineer, Recording Director

 

These are the earliest recordings in the box-set, dating from the early ’60s. Oscar Peterson became friends with Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, who recorded Peterson while he was under an exclusive contract to Verve. Due to legal obligations, the earliest recordings were held until 1968, when Peterson’s Verve contract had expired. Action was recorded live, in studio, for an invited audience of friends and associates.

The date is infused with abandon. Everything is clean and bright, musically. Even the blues tinged moments are snappy and on top of the beat. In general, it sounds like the group was at ease.

For the most part, the set if filled with standards. Peterson, like Art Tatum with whom Peterson is often compared, is a pianist, first and foremost. He is known for interpretations, rather than his own compositions.

“At Long Last Love” (Cole Porter) 4:56

“Easy Walker” (Billy Taylor) 9:36

“Tin Tin Deo” (Gil Fuller, Chano Pozo) 5:34

“I’ve Got a Crush on You” (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin) 5:15

“A Foggy Day” (G. Gershwin, I. Gershwin) 4:35

“Like Someone in Love” (Johnny Burke, Jimmy Van Heusen) 11:18
The sound of Action is slightly dry, with the studio sound intact. It does sound like analog. Cymbals and overtones are airy and delicate, with good textures.

“Easy Walker”, by Billy Taylor, is probably the most obscure tune in the set, though it is beautiful; and the group’s playing is sweet and laid-back. “Tin Tin Deo” is a toe-tapper; a blues tinged urban take on a Latin theme.

The preceding “Tin Tin Deo” and “I’ve Got a Crush On You” are the two strongest performances here. The opening to the Gershwin Brothers’ masterpiece is exceedingly sensitive, on par with Bill Evans most intimate playing. It shows Peterson has a full range of emotions (not just flashy technique, contrary to his detractors).

“Foggy Day” is the classic Peterson Trio sound. I can’t put it in words, but there is a familiarity, like a good pair of broken-in leather shoes. It’s not formulaic or cheap. Rather, it’s something that works perfectly: form-fitting, precise and familiar.

“Like Someone in Love” features an extended bass solo, and Peterson’s playing is self-assured. It’s probably the truest representation of Peterson’s solo style: romantic, sweet and delicate. Had Peterson chosen classical music, he would’ve been a natural for Baroque and Classical forms.

It’s self-evident that the rest of the trio fit Peterson like a glove. These men had musical telepathy.

 

Volume II

Girl Talk

VIP 15: The MPS Oscar Peterson Solo Recordings Review

 

Girl Talk is assembled from various dates recorded from 1964 to ’65, and features two different trios.

Ray Brown
Bass on “Robbin’s Nest”, “I Concentrate On You”/”Moon River”
Bobby Durham
Drums on “On a Clear Day”, “Girl Talk”
Louis Hayes
Drums on “Robbin’s Nest”, “I Concentrate On You”/”Moon River”
Sam Jones
Bass on “I’m in the Mood for Love”
Oscar Peterson
Piano
Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer
Engineer, Recording Director

 

Like Action, Girl Talk is comprised mostly of standards, though “Robbin’s Nest” was new to me.

“On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)” (Burton Lane, Alan Jay Lerner) – 4:27

“I’m in the Mood for Love” (Dorothy Fields, Jimmy McHugh) – 17:22

“Girl Talk” (Neal Hefti, Bobby Troup) – 5:41

Medley: “I Concentrate on You”/”Moon River” (Cole Porter)/(Henry Mancini, Johnny Mercer) – 6:30

“Robbin’s Nest” (Illinois Jacquet, Bob Russell, Sir Charles Thompson) – 6:21

 

“On A Clear Day” features the classic Peterson sound you know and love, including Peterson’s trademark glissando. The playing is ebullient and effervescent. “I’m In The Mood For Love” features a lovely chord progression and sound that’s rich and velvety. The extended opening solo sounds like an open letter to an old love. The playing is extremely intimate.

“Girl Talk” has an urbane R&B flavor, like a Nancy Wilson interpretation. There are very “tall” block chords. Halfway through it starts to cook, builds to an impressive peak, then relaxes.

The Medley reminds me of Peterson’s live club recordings, featuring his gift of vamping and changing tempi and keys as fast as anyone that ever played. In his long solos, his left hand becomes part of the rhythm section, while his right hand is free to improvise. It does sound like there are two pianists at times (the left and right hand styles are distinct).

“Robbin’s Nest” is a fine example of Peterson’s block-ish, or tall playing, that emphasizes the chord progressions and structure of the tune, while providing the framework for his prodigious right-hand talent. If you listen for the voicing of chords throughout this set, you hear a contrast of the very tall, to voicings that are rich and compact.

The sound of Girl Talk is more natural than volume one. It’s delicate and natural.

 

Volume III

The Way I Really Play

VIP 14: The MPS Oscar Peterson Solo Recordings Review

 

Recorded at the private studio of Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, Villingen-Schwenningen, West Germany, April, 1968

Bobby Durham
Drums
Sam Jones
Bass
Oscar Peterson
Piano
Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer
Engineer, Recording Director

 

“Waltzing Is Hip” (Ray Brown, Johnny Wayne) – 6:11

“Satin Doll” (Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, Billy Strayhorn) – 10:05

“Our Love Is Here to Stay” (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin) – 4:54

“Sandy’s Blues” (Oscar Peterson) – 9:34

“Alice in Wonderland” (Sammy Fain, Bob Hilliard) – 4:46

“Noreen’s Nocturne” (Oscar Peterson) – 9:20

 

“Waltzing Is Hip” sounds influenced by the Cannonball Adderley records of the late ’60s. Peterson’s solo is progressive at times, followed by an extended drum solo showing Durham’s quite prodigious talent.

“Satin Doll” is stretched out and broadened (length and height) compared to a typical Ellington performance. It’s more introspective, with more time on developing chord progressions and a “satin” sonority. Peterson’s solo starts with a long series of densely voiced (short, compact) chords, before moving on to right hand melodic playing. For those of you, like me, that knows “Satin Doll” like the back of your hand, this deconstruction and construction will be enlightening. It proves you can take a standard in any direction, visiting fresh territory along the way.

“Our Love Is Here to Stay” occasionally reminds of George Shearing. “Sandy’s Blues”, by Peterson, and named for his wife, opens with hints of stride, or perhaps R&B, with flourishes of technical brilliance, then settles into 12-bar blues, with Peterson changing styles every 12 bars. Eventually the ensemble goes into double-time, with a return of a more typical Peterson solo style.

“Alice in Wonderland” sounds very much like a selection Bill Evans would make. The waltz is reminiscent of several show tunes, and glides along at speed and facility only surpassed by the likes of Art Tatum. I’m not much for waltzes, with the exception of one or two from the waltz king, and La Valse, a nightmarish waltz from Ravel. However, the many boring waltzes were worth it after hearing them in the hands of a great jazz pianist.

The side closes with “Noreen’s Nocturne”, by Peterson, and is terrific. If his composing had been as prolific as his playing, what riches would’ve been produced? This tune switches gears hard, several times, and rocks along with abandon. It’s a foot-stomper that even “trades solos” with drummer Durham at the end. There’s no better way of ending a Peterson set.

2 Responses to VIP 14: The MPS Oscar Peterson Solo Recordings Review


  1. Olivier says:

    Hi,

    read your article with great interest and it gives the envy of buying this set right away. Forgive me id I miss it but is this set CDs or LPs?
    Best

  2. phillip holmes says:

    Olivier,

    The set is available as CD and LP.

    This review was just of the LP set.

    Thanks for asking.

    Regards,
    Phillip

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