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Double-dealing

At 78, he resembled a retired linebacker. He trudged over to his piano and leaned against it. When the ovation died, Oscar Peterson, flopped down on his piano stool, and played flawlessly with only his right hand. Peterson shared a double-bill Wednesday night at Detroit’s Orchestra Hall with saxophonist Branford Marsalis. They opened the 2003 Standard Federal Paradise Jazz Series.

Peterson left hand was immobile because of a stroke he stuffed a few years ago. His right hand carried the weight. It chased chords, kept the melody, and improvised.

Peterson didn’t talk much. He is from an era where jazz musicians let their instruments do the talking. And Peterson’s piano talked non-stop. It cried when he played a ballad, it told long stories when he played a blues, and at times it even gossiped. When Peterson finally spoke, he lamented the death of jazz musicians he admired.

" Over the past few years jazz has managed to handle some heavy blows," He said. " We lost Milt Jackson, Stanley Turrentine, and Ray Brown." The remarks segued into Requiem For JL, a song he composed for the late John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. He played it with the softness of a child’s tears dropping into a handful of cotton.

Peterson rendered ballads like his fingers were made of feathers. He was gracious, melancholic, and reflective.

Near the end of his set, Peterson got a second wind. The right hand seemed possessed. On up-tempo tunes his hand moved so fast it looked as if four hands were dancing across the keys instead of one. He cooled things down for a moment when he interpolated a ballad with a blues number.

Peterson had some people behaving uncharacteristically. The gentlemen setting next to me told me his wife came with him as a birthday gift although she disliked jazz. At concerts, she normally falls asleep. Jokingly, he said that if she fail asleep during Peterson’s set that he would awaken her.

But Peterson’s take on Sweet Georgia Brown got to her. Instead of napping, she was snapping her fingers and patting her feet. Peterson opened the tune with a good-natured interplay with his guitarist.

A man amazed by Peterson’s performance commented that Peterson could play better with one hand than most contemporary pianists could with both.

Peterson displayed the trademarks that he inherited from Art Tatum and Bud Powell notably playing lengthy intricate line, and making his piano sound like it’s being played by two different pianists.

Years ago, in a interview with jazz critic Len Lyons, Peterson told him that as a youngster he use to practice 18 hours daily. Which may explain the enduring strength of that amazing right hand.

Whereas Peterson was gracious and reticent, saxophonist Branford Marsalis was lackluster and silly. Unfortunately, Marsalis didn’t perform any of the material from his stellar albums Requiem, and Contemporary Jazz. Those recording reclaimed Marsalis position as a force in jazz circles after his many musical forays notably the woeful Buckshot La Fonque, and his frivolous antic as musical director of the Tonight Show.

"We look forward not back." Was his reason for not playing material from the aforementioned albums. Marsalis, however, did perform Ruby and the Pearl, and Dinner for One Please, James, compositions from a forthcoming release.

Marsalis began his set by updating the audience on the American and National League baseball playoffs, which lets you know what he was doing backstage while Peterson’s right hand was working overtime.

Marsalis favorite teams must have lost because his playing was uninspired and sporadic.

There was one noteworthy moment, however. Marsalis’ solo on Ruby and The Pearl. He delivered it smoothly.

Mostly, Marsalis appeared preoccupied and unenthusiastic. Even Jeff "Tain" Watts, Marsalis’ drummer was off his game. Normally, he makes his presence felt. Here Watts seemed comfortable being subservient.

Pianist Joey Calderazzo stole the show, which given Marsalis lackluster state was easy to do. Sometimes, Calderazzo can be animated. He avoided the colorful splashes of sound that characterizes his style. Like Marsalis and the late Kenny Kirkland, Calderazzo plays a lot of notes. This night, however, he got to the point. His animation remained intact. His fingers looked like ten miniature legs dancing on the keys.

For those Marsalis fans that attended expecting to hear the kind of imagination, fire, and passion that he has displayed on recordings, Marsalis let them down.

It was Oscar Peterson’s night. Marsalis toyed while Peterson’s right hand did all the work.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Oscar Peterson
  • Concert Date: 10/15/2003
  • Subtitle: Oscar swung but Branford stunk
  • Venue: Orchestra Hall
  • City State Country: Detroit, MI
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