Oscar Peterson Trio – West Side Story (1962) -Verve/Universal/Analogue Productions CVRJ 8454 SA stereo-only SACD, 34:34 [5/30/14] *****:
(Oscar Peterson – piano; Ray Brown – bass; Ed Thigpen – drums)
Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson was more than his country’s greatest musical export. At an early age he mastered complex techniques and developed an intense practice regimen that he followed throughout his lifetime. One of his earliest influences was Art Tatum. Consequently, this led to an appreciation of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos. This specific interest was part of his eclectic approach to musical interpretation. He became a jazz icon, nicknamed the “Maharaja of the Keyboard” by Duke Ellington.
A crucial development in his career took place as Peterson was signed by Norman Granz (Verve) and subsequently participated in Jazz At The Philharmonic. There, he played with important artists of that time, including Louis Armstrong, Ray Brown, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Milt Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Joe Pass and Stan Getz. Over the next several decades, Peterson would record solo piano, duets, trios, quartets and big bands, bringing his unique musical expression to bebop, hard bop and third stream jazz (combining jazz with classical music). He won eight Grammys and earned a cadre of honorary doctorates.
Peterson is renowned for his classic piano trio recordings. In 1962, he decided to record an album of music from West Side Story. This musical and Oscar-winning movie revolutionized modern music with its urban, gritty translation of Romeo and Juliet. Many jazz and pop music artists were eager to record versions of Leonard Bernstein’s brilliant score. In 1962, Peterson along with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen released Oscar Peterson Trio – West Side Story on Verve Records. Now, Analog Productions has re-mastered this album to SACD with exciting results. Seven unique adaptations of Broadway songs are transformed into rousing jazz improvisations. Peterson comes out strong on “Something’s Coming” with a frenetic, syncopated piano line against Brown’s fiery bass groove and Thigpen’s drum and cymbal accents. Then at the 00:50 mark, the song assumes a melodic interlude, before taking on another fast shift and inspired swing jam. The trio maintains the core emotion of the piece (hopeful expectancy) and takes it on a wild ride. “Somewhere” is recognized for its lyrical elegance. Peterson’s chords embrace the theme with delicacy and occasional flourish. Ray Brown’s use of “single bass” or arco bass adds a graceful touch to the arrangement. Eventually the trio settles into a slower waltz time as Peterson provides elegant shading.
All the finger-snapping cool of “Jet Song” is on display, but with interesting chord variations. But Peterson adds some bluesy right-hand riffs with a lower register walking treble bass line. As the group settles into medium swing mode, Thigpen and Brown anchor the piano mastery. “Tonight” gets a crisper up tempo, but not without the dramatic elements that define this composition. Peterson creates an exuberant, hard-driving improvisation. The piano solos are fiercely rhythmic, and utilize some of the inherent cascading essentials. On “Maria” Peterson explores the latin roots, but is wildly original in the presentation. Again this trio shines on the sprightly jams, always returning to the atmospheric nuances. “I Feel Pretty” sustains the playful nature, but with dramatic accents and ¾ tempo shifts. To accentuate the trio’s intuitive grasp of this score, a four-minute “Reprise” breezes through the material with deft instrumentation by all three players.
Oscar Peterson Trio – West Side Story is an unqualified success in jazz interpretation of popular music. The SACD engineering is pristine. The instruments are mixed with precision and the stereo separation is flawless. Bass and drums are not subdued in the background. The piano tonality is excellent and captures emphatic chording or moody aesthetics with appropriate vibrancy. It is a jazz classic for the ages. [I have to say I compared this SACD with my old DCC Jazz gold CD version, and could tell absolutely no difference between them. And I’m not a fan of gold CDs, feeling that many other steps in the production of a CD can influence its final sonics…Ed.]
TrackList: Something’s Coming; Somewhere; Jet Song; Tonight; Maria; I Feel Pretty; Reprise