October 31, 2018

Oscar Peterson Plays and Plays and Plays…


During the first half of the Twentieth Century, the heart of the music business was not the performer, but the composer. Recording stars, Radio, Broadway and Hollywood musicals were almost completely dependent on these song writers, whose tunes could turn shows from flops into hits and turn performers into stars — on stage, on screen or on records.

As these songs became true standards — part of the “standard repertoire” of one or more musical genres — they collectively formed a body of work that came to be known as “The Great American Songbook.” With this in mind, record producer Norman Granz hit on the idea of documenting the work of the songbook composers in a series of albums by one of his best and most popular artists.

Pianist Oscar Peterson was more than up to the challenge. Peterson was a true virtuoso with an overwhelming command of the instrument and its capabilities. Initially influenced by jazz piano’s first real master, Art Tatum, he took the basics of Tatum’s approach and adapted it to literally any musical situation he could possibly be called upon to perform.

Peterson had been discovered by Norman Granz during one of Granz’s “Jazz at the Philharmonic” tours through Canada, when he reportedly heard the Montreal native on a local radio broadcast. Granz quickly signed the pianist to both a management contract as well as a recording deal.

Instantly becoming the house pianist for Granz’ labels, Peterson found himself playing alongside everyone from Charlie Parker to Lester Young to Ella Fitzgerald and almost every other major jazz star of the 1950s as they all passed through Granz’ various record labels: Clef, Norgran, and Down Home. As a result, Peterson would make dozens and dozens of LPs, both as a leader and sideman, during the ‘50s alone.

The 10 songbook LPs that Peterson recorded for Granz between 1952 and 1954 were
career defining and made Peterson something of a household name, leading to a recording career that would ultimately encompass an untold number of recordings — well into the hundreds — that continue to rotate in and out of print to this day.

Peterson’s entire songbook series has been collected together — all ten LPs — into one five-CD set Oscar Peterson Plays (Verve 5380361). The composers represented in these LPs encompass basically the entirety of early-to-mid Twentieth Century popular music. Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Vincent Youmans, Harry Warren, Harold Arlen and Jimmy McHugh each have a dozen of their best compositions interpreted in jazz trio form by Peterson’s trio, which featured Ray Brown on bass and either Herb Ellis or Barney Kessel on guitar.

Standouts among the roughly seven-hour run time of this package are the Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and George Gershwin sessions. Being already written in the jazz form, these composer’s songs are naturals for jazz trio, but Peterson, Kessel and Brown seem particularly inspired throughout each 12- song program.

As great as the individual songbook albums were, by the later 1950s, things had changed for both Peterson as well as producer Norman Granz. In 1956, Granz consolidated his several labels into one single operation, titled Verve Records. Peterson had also changed the format of his trio — trading the rhythm guitar for the more traditional support of drums behind the bass and piano, allowing for faster tempos as well as a more forceful, almost aggressive approach.

With these factors in mind, Peterson’s new trio recorded the songbook series again in 1958. The resulting series of albums, also collected together in a five CD set (Oscar Peterson – The Song Books – Verve 5380367) makes a very interesting companion piece to the above package.

As would entire generations of musicians and singers, Oscar Peterson continued to incorporate many of these songs into his concerts and albums for decades to come. Peterson’s song book albums have withstood the test of time and, just like the classic Twentieth-century American song book itself, will hold up for centuries to come.

Armand Lewis buys and sells rare Jazz LPs. He can be reached at


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