Oscar Peterson (1925-2007): An Appreciation

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Oscar Peterson, one of jazz music’s most recognizable modern-day pianists, was felled on Sunday not from the lingering effects of a 1993 stroke — he kept playing after that — but from kidney failure. He passed, aged 82, in his native Canada outside Toronto.

Peterson’s stroke compromised his left hand some, but never his spirit. That unstoppable will to swing drove a style called “meticulous, ornate and sometimes overwhelming” by The New York Times. It was all of that, and somehow more.

Peterson’s career spanned seven decades, during which he played with some of the biggest names in jazz — including Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie.

Basie once said, “Oscar Peterson plays the best ivory box I’ve ever heard.” Duke Ellington referred to him as the “Maharajah of the keyboard.” He’s also remembered for touring in a trio with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis beginning in the 1950s.

No surprise that Peterson found his way into this blog for his performances on two important jazz records, with the bassist Brown and with legendary saxophonist Lester Young:

“Lester Young, With the Oscar Peterson Trio” (1952): Peterson (and the underrated Ray Brown on bass) help the cool-swinging Pres breathe life into a series of timeless pieces … “Tea for Two,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” “Almost Like Being in Love,” so on. Completely in the pocket.

Ray Brown with Oscar Peterson and Milt Jackson, “The Very Tall Band” (1999): Brown won Acoustic Bassist of the Year in Down Beat’s Readers Poll after a thoroughly successful collaboration with Peterson and Jackson. Ooooh, I’ve burned this one UP!

Born on Aug. 15, 1925, in a poor neighborhood southwest of Montreal, Peterson was a boy prodigy often compared to Art Tatum, his childhood idol, for both speed and skill — and to Nat King Cole, an underrated genius at the piano who later became more widely known as a singer. Peterson called Cole’s legendary trio album “a complete musical thesaurus for any aspiring jazz pianist.”

In time, Peterson would popularize their most inspired stylings, leaving his own indelible mark on jazz.

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