December 3, 2008


Oscar Peterson's Least-Familiar Music (WILL FRIEDWALD, 12/03/08, Wall Street Journal)

Once I was having a drink with the excellent singer and pianist Freddy Cole when the stereo system served up a sound that made me stop dead in my tracks: a recording I had never heard by the King Cole Trio, the legendary combo led by Freddy's late older brother, Nat King Cole. I pointed this out to Mr. Cole, and he shot me back a look that said "Gotcha!" It wasn't Nat Cole at all; instead, it was an early recording in the King Cole style by one of the King's most ardent subjects, the young Oscar Peterson.

Peterson (1925-2007) was quite possibly the most celebrated and prolifically recorded jazz pianist of all time; even today, the size of the Peterson bin in any record store will dwarf that of virtually any other artist. It's hard to believe that any aspect of his prodigious catalog has been neglected by reissue producers, yet Mosaic Records has just released a new seven-CD boxed set, "The Complete Clef/Mercury Recordings of the Oscar Peterson Trio" (available from, containing his least-heard music, from the very early period when the Canadian pianist's own North Star was Nat Cole. [...]

To hear Peterson playing with the combination of economy and virtuosity that was the trademark of Nat King Cole is a startling thing, yet track after track (including "Turtle Neck," the original Peterson swinger that opens the set) finds Peterson, the man who would later be king, playing in the King's court. To start with, the instrumentation, of Brown's bass and Barney Kessel's guitar, was deliberately patterned after Cole's trend-setting piano-guitar-bass trio (a trend that Tatum himself even followed for a while in the '40s -- and so did many others, from Ray Charles to Red Norvo). And for one date in 1952, the guitarist was Irving Ashby, who had served with Cole for several years. And it's not just the format or the abstract mindset -- the Oscar Peterson Trio closely follows the arrangement style, the chordal voicings, the approach to melody and harmony, and the back-phrasing employed on key parts of the tunes of the King Cole Trio. Peterson's version of "Body and Soul" seems less like a remake than a sequel to the classic King Cole Trio recording of 1944, with Peterson and Kessel obviously very conscious of Cole and his guitarist Oscar Moore.

It wasn't a coincidence. Cole had earlier been the star of producer Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic concert series, but around this time he gave up his trio to become one of the most successful pop singers ever. John McDonough, an occasional contributor to the Journal, quotes Granz in his excellent liner notes as saying that he was looking for a replacement for Cole. "And then, when I found Oscar, he became my Nat Cole." As if the sound of the piano and the trio weren't close enough, Peterson even sings (on six titles here) in a high voice that sounds like a Canadian King Cole.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 3, 2008 7:09 AM
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