Top jazz players pay tribute to Oscar Peterson

Oscar Peterson’s dazzling keyboard technique, commanding sense of swing and mastery of different piano styles from boogie woogie to bebop could leave even his most accomplished peers awestruck. His death over the weekend brought forth tributes from jazz pianists spanning the generations.

Fellow jazz piano legend Dave Brubeck said he was “saddened by the news of Oscar’s passing”. Peterson died on Sunday of kidney failure at his home in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, with his wife and daughter at his side.

Brubeck (87) recalled the first time he ever heard a Peterson recording shortly after jazz impresario Norman Granz introduced the Canadian pianist to American audiences at a 1949 Carnegie Hall concert.

“Norman Granz had brought the record to [DJ] Jimmy Lyons at NBC in San Francisco.
‘Guess who?,’ he asked. I was in awe. It sounded like Art Tatum reincarnated. Every jazz pianist would soon know that Oscar was a master,” Brubeck said in an email message on Tuesday.

Tatum was a major influence on Peterson. As a teenager growing up in a poor Montreal neighbourhood, Peterson was so intimidated by Tatum’s breakneck tempos and cascading runs that he didn’t touch the piano for a month after his father played a Tatum recording for him.

Brubeck recalled that in 1993 he was one of three jazz pianists asked to fill in at a Carnegie Hall concert after Peterson cancelled an appearance because a serious stroke had weakened his left hand.

“Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner and I were asked to come to Carnegie Hall and take Oscar’s place, when he was unable to perform. I’m not sure that the three of us playing at the top of our form were able to fill his shoes, but we gave it a try. Oscar, as Duke Ellington would say, was ‘beyond category’.”

Another piano legend, Herbie Hancock (67), whose latest album, River: The Joni Letters, was nominated for three Grammys, including album of the year, said Peterson’s influence could be found “in the generations that came after him”.

“Oscar Peterson redefined swing for modern jazz pianists for the latter half of the 20th century up until today,” Hancock said in an email message. “I consider him the major influence that formed my roots in jazz piano playing. He mastered the balance between technique, hard blues grooving, and tenderness ... No one will ever be able to take his place.”

Peterson had a similar impact on a young Diana Krall growing up in Nanaimo, British Columbia, who was spotted playing in local clubs by bassist Ray Brown, a long-time member of the Oscar Peterson Trio, who encouraged her to move to Los Angeles.

Peterson “was the reason I became a jazz pianist,” Krall (43) told the Los Angeles Times. “In my high-school yearbook it says that my goal is to become a jazz pianist like Oscar Peterson.”

“I didn’t know then we’d become such close friends over the years,” the singer-pianist added. “We were together at his house in October, playing and singing songs together. Now it’s almost impossible for me to think of him in the past tense.”

While Peterson was known for his lightning-fast keyboard runs, jazz piano veteran Hank Jones called attention to his finesse and deft touch on melodic, slow-tempo tunes. “He had a beautiful approach to ballads, which a lot of pianists forget,” Jones (89) told the Canadian Press.

Marian McPartland (89), the host of National Public Radio’s long-running Piano Jazz series, called Peterson “the finest technician that I have seen”. She recalled first meeting Peterson when she and her husband, jazz cornetist Jimmy McPartland, opened for him at the Colonial Tavern in Toronto in the 1940s.

“He was always wonderful to me, and I have always felt very close to him,” the jazz pianist said in a statement. “I played at his tribute concert at Carnegie Hall earlier this year and performed Tenderly, which was always my favourite piece of his.”

Composer and pianist Roger Kellaway, who was the musical director of that June 8 tribute concert, told the Canadian Press: “I always wanted to be able to play with as much power as he had. When [jazz writer and Peterson biographer] Gene Lees asked me, ‘What is it about Oscar that you love?’ I said, ‘The will to swing.’”

Kellaway’s last CD, Heroes, pays tribute to Peterson’s drummerless trio of the 1950s with Brown on bass and Barney Kessel or Herb Ellis on guitar.

The youngest pianist appearing at the tribute was Eldar Djangirov (20), who plays the fast-tempo Place St Henri, named for the Montreal district where Peterson grew up, on his Grammy-nominated album

re-imagination. The piece is a movement from Peterson’s 1964 Canadiana Suite, written to express his pride in his native country, which Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper credited as a “signature element of the country’s cultural fabric”.

Djangirov said he decided to become a jazz musician after listening to Peterson’s records as a boy growing up in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia—an indication of how far Peterson’s reach spread.

“He was the first I ever heard and my main artistic influence,” Djangirov said. “He would play things with one hand that most piano players couldn’t do with both of their hands.”—Sapa-AP

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