Oscar Peterson has been a presence in jazz for more than half a century. It was with Norman Granz’s Pablo Records that he spent the vast majority of that long career. Given that Granz "discovered" the Canadian pianist and put him on his Jazz at the Philharmonic shows in the early 1950s, this was perhaps logical. It is with this logic at hand that the package opens with JATP performances from 1953. "That Old Black Magic" and "Tenderly," with Ray Brown on bass and the tantalizing Herb Ellis on guitar were recorded in Tokyo for what was reportedly the first U.S. tour of jazz artists to visit Japan since the end of the Second World War. The same trio, recorded two years later at Zardi’s, offers a simply amazing version of "How High The Moon," with Peterson exhibiting impressive Tatum-like fills, as well as a gorgeous version of "The Way You Look Tonight" and "You Are Too Beautiful." With bassist Sam Jones and Bobby Durham, Peterson had a trio that exhibited a slight change in direction with their 1967 takes on "Smedley," "Some Day My Prince Will Come" and "Day Train." Also offered on this set from The Greatest Jazz Concert In The World are a superb rendition of "Moonglow" with the legendary tenorist Coleman Hawkins in the lineup, and a blowing session on "Sweet Georgia Brown" that features Hawkins in tandem with Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, Sam Jones and Louis Hayes. Yet another trio, this with guitarist Irving Ashby and bassist Brown, is represented with 1972 versions of "Wes’ Tune," "Okie Blues" and "You Can Depend on Me."
Disc Two features the pianist in a dozen duet meetings with contemporaries and label-mates that dazzle. Peterson is heard to wonderful effect on "You Are My Sunshine," with bassist Ray Brown (1972), and "Caravan," on which he plays impossibly complex piano runs to match Dizzy Gillespie’s stellar trumpet work (1974). "Stella By Starlight" (1975) and "Summertime" (1976, with Peterson on clavinet), both feature the work of guitar great Joe Pass. A wonderful "Little Jazz," sees Peterson in tandem with legendary trumpeter Roy "Little Jazz" Eldridge (1974). Here, too are trumpeters Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison ("Mean to Me," 1974), Clark Terry ("On A Slow Boat To China," 1975) and Jon Faddis (sizzling on "Blues for Birks," 1975). He shares the stage with long time bassist Niels-Henning Orsted-Pedersen ("Soft Winds," 1975), the vibraphone maestro Milt Jackson ("Oh Lady Be Good," 1983) and the exquisite Ella Fitzgerald ("How Long Has This Been Going On? 1975). The disc closes with a torrid solo piano workout in "Hogtown Blues," originally released in 1972.
The third disc features Peterson in live settings that highlight his interaction with the likes of Orsted-Pedersen, Pass, Jake Hanna, Ray Brown, Count Basie, Louis Bellson, John Heard, Martin Drew, and David Young. "Blues Etude," recorded in May 1973 at The London House in Chicago features Peterson, Pass and Orsted-Pedersen in a jogging piece that sees the three masters push themselves to jaw-dropping brilliance. The duo pianos on "I’m Confessin’ That I Love You," with Basie, Bellson and Heard, was cut at Group IV Studios in Hollywood in February 1978. At around that time I recall seeing Oscar Peterson open as a solo act for the Count Basie Big Band. Later that night I was invited to a surprise birthday party for Basie, which Oscar was to have attended, but sadly did not. The version of "Goodbye," recorded at Salle Pleyel in Paris in October 1978, features Pass and Orsted-Pedersen, but is wholly the pianist’s piece. His lines are quick witted and brilliantly played.
The final disc in the box features larger ensembles, and what ensembles they are! Opening with "Take the A Train," taken from the The Greatest Jazz Concert In The World album, recorded with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra in 1967, inserts Oscar into Duke’s chair for a spirited take on the venerable classic. The rocking "5400 North" sees Peterson on stage with muscular tenorist Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, the famed tenor master Stan Getz, Basie’s guitarist Freddie Green, the masterful drummer Ed Thigpen, bassist Ray Brown, trombone master Al Grey and the song’s composer, Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison. Recorded live at the Santa Monica Civic in 1972, it rocks it in rhythm. Count Basie, Freddie Green, Louis Bellson and Ray Brown join Oscar for a lovely "Exactly Like You." Charlie Parker’s classic "Au Privave" is lifted from The Oscar Peterson Big Six at Montreux, my favorite of the many, many Oscar Peterson albums released on Pablo. Here is Oscar ripping up the ivories and keeping pace with harmonica genius Toots Thielemans, Joe Pass, Niels-Henning Orsted-Pedersen, Milt Jackson and Louis Bellson. I play this for people who tell me they don’t like jazz. It has every bit as much energy as any rock and roll tune you’ve ever heard, with triple the chops, stamina and brilliance. "If I Were A Bell" is offered in a group setting with Dizzy and Clark Terry on trumpets, Lockjaw on tenor, Orsted-Pedersen on bass and drummer Bobby Durham, while the Django Reinhardt classic "Nuages" features bassist Orsted-Pedersen and drummer Mickey Roker sharing a stage in Copenhagen with Joe Pass, sounding just exquisite, and Reinhardt’s old bandmate, the soaring gypsy violinist Stephane Grappelli. On "Some of These Days," Oscar sings in a surprisingly effective Nat Cole style, and is backed by trumpeter Terry, guitarist Ed Bickert, bassist Dave Young, drummer Jerry Fuller and a string section. It’s the only instance of the pianist vocalizing on the collection, and is wholly satisfying. "Lady Di’s Waltz," taken from 1981’s A Royal Wedding, is a tender solo piece surrounded by strings, and the closing number on the disc, "Stuffy," notches it back up with a riffing combo of Sweets Edison, altoist Eddie 'Cleanhead' Vinson, Pass, Young and Drew.
Oscar Peterson is royalty. Outside of Art Tatum on a good day, he was untouchable in his prime. There are still few pianists alive who deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. This is a vital set that belongs in every serious jazz fan’s collection.