December 2007 would be my first December since 1996 where I would not have listened to Oscar Peterson’s Christmas album (1995 Telarc) at least once before folks around me started belching out Auld Lang Syne. I bought the Peterson recording shortly before Christmas in the year of 1996, and have since then bestowed a prerogative thereupon to entertain me, ahead of everything else, in the month of December. That recording, perhaps Peterson’s best-selling and most accessible recording of seasonal music, is a gorgeous yet subtly effusive piece of art work that has defined many a December for me in ways that not even ecclesiastic traditions and conventions have.But 2007 is not exactly a normal year for me. 2007 was the year I uprooted myself from America, where I have spent a great majority of my past 11 years, and moved to Beijing, where I now reside. I settled down in Beijing with trepidation and a great level of uncertainty. I also arrived with one suitcase, with just enough space for my clothes and not nearly enough to include any of my CDs (including my Petersons). For whatever reason, though my iPod has enough music to keep me entertained for a month without a single song repeat, none in my digital collection has anything to do with Christmas, and certainly nothing of the Peterson recording that I have been listening to every December in the past decade.
The above revelation, still, would not begin to describe how terribly I feel right now. As I posted earlier, Peterson passed away this Christmas Eve, an irony in timing, as if, not merely to remind me of that Christmas album (disclosure: I certainly was listening to his music, albeit not that specific recording of Christmas music), but also to formalize my guilt for having abandoned his recording this year, and alas, for the first time in more than a decade.Oscar Peterson, whom I have never met in person, has always been special to me. The first jazz recording that captured my imagination was “We Get Requests”, a light but delightful, controlled execution of popular bossa nova standards such as “Girl from Ipanema” and “Corcovado”. Back in 1993, it was my most perfect introduction to jazz as Peterson, in that recording, was unambiguously deferential to the original bossa nova melodies – thus making the music more accessible –even as he colored them with jubilant but judiciously modest jazz constructions. This bit of discovery came well after I started repeating the tracks, before I had any inkling that the record, as it stands today in history, has its place in jazz history as an exemplary cornerstone of a movement that attempted to bring jazz back to a more polished, tuneful nature after a go-go period of bop, when melodies were often liberally dismantled, dissected and reduced, with abandon, into their most naked and primitive forms before being reconstructed into something else. Because jazz connoisseurs often find such “reconstructions” intellectually appealing, “We Get Requests” is often considered to be harmonic fluff, but the kind of frothy fluff so well made that reminds people of a perfectly executed soufflé in its immaculate, indefectible erection. Just as it takes nothing less than a chef obsessed with precision, restraint and finesse to deliver a lush soufflé beyond compare, it takes nothing less than a musical genius like Peterson to deliver musical numbers as palatable and joyous, yet simple and uncluttered, as those found in “We Get Requests”.
When my taste for jazz was finally mature enough to tackle Peterson’s more progressive works, I knew I was in for a serious treat. Of all of Peterson’s more formulaic, progressive works, I count the series titled “The Exclusively for My Friends” one of my all-time favorites. If metaphorized into painting, the music in that series offered a much larger, freer canvas on which Peterson could execute with more aesthetic flair and technical fervor. Peterson, at least as technically proficient as any other jazz pianist in the history of the music form, had a free roam in this vast, unadulterated land of improvising opportunity, often delivering numbers upon numbers of music that, if readers so indulge me, conjures delirious episodes of synesthesia and orgasmic nirvana. This canvas was where Peterson would unleash his technical and artistic arsenals: augmented arpeggios, catchy leitmotifs, re-harmonization of blues chords, temporal dissonance, block and parallel chords, alteration of dominant functions etc., providing a continuous source of sensory, almost dizzy triggers that allow the audience to drift into Peterson's personally handcrafted world. Technical dexterity notwithstanding, Peterson’s ability to control dynamics and tempo was another foundation of his artistic mastery, the kind of magical aptitude similar to that perfected by a sorcerer who would wave his wand and control the ebb and flow of the emotional and episodic energy flowing through mortals like us. Peterson’s music flies and glides in a border-less sky of emotional and spiritual possibilities, soaring into the celestial outer-space in Peterson’s sanctioned instances while sharp diving into the abyss in others, thereby creating a sensory roller coaster that leaves an enduring, indelible mark in the audience’s perceptive psyche.I remember listening to a rare interview of Peterson speaking of how he would prepare before a performance. To Peterson, the only preparation was to feel the depth of the keys, or the extent to which a key needs to be pressed before the hammer butt (which is coupled with the keyboard element) pivots towards the sound-generating string of the instrument. That description, though mechanical, if not also archaic, underlies Peterson’s pure genius: the same question posed to any other musician would probably induce responses such as a few minutes of physical warm-ups with chromatic scales and arpeggios, seat adjustments, a few deep breaths etc. To Peterson, it was merely a brief outreaching action to the keys that allowed them to become a part of him –in a way that seamlessly bound the musician with the musical instrument. This recollection reminds me of a quote by composer Phil Nimmons, a longtime friend of Peterson and a co-producer of Peterson’s “Canadiana Suite”: “The piano is like an extension of [Peterson’s] own physical being.”
I wish in my lifetime, I could say, with neither shame nor moral opprobrium, that the piano is an extension of my physical being. Just like a basketball, in the hands of Michael Jordan, becomes a part of the basketball player until Jordan decides to destine it for the basket, piano keys were completely Peterson’s until he decided to allow them to produce sounds for transmission to human audio nerves. While I have never listened to Peterson in a live concert, I would imagine how the audience, being mortals, would drop their jaws in an unrehearsed yet synchronized manner as they luxuriated in Peterson’s acoustic splendor.My endless outpour of praise aside, I must contend that some of Peterson’s compositions, including famous ones such as "Place St. Henri", were, at least to me, more about technical exuberance than emotional connectivity which, I truly believe, is the anchoring hallmark of any jazz composition. "Place St. Henri", a piece that was slated to portray the vibrant economic and cultural viability in Peterson’s home town of Montreal, seems, at least to me, to glorify breathless technical rigor much more than the artist’s emotional connection with the geographical subject matter. As I read a plethora of obituary tomes (listed below), I wish obit writers would place more emphasis on Peterson’s more enterprising, radical compositions, one such as "Easter Suite", a magnum opus less known by the public but perhaps one that proves to be critically significant in the history of jazz composition. Commissioned by a British television show and broadcasted nationwide in England on Good Friday, April 24, 1984, the piece has eight movements, each following the events narrated in the corresponding gospel story. While other musicians before Peterson had improvised on top of gospel music, few have exploited a biblical story as a source of improvisational inspiration. In addition, it also seems ironic, if not fundamentally flawed, that a well-known, predictable story in the Bible was re-construed via the free-minded, unpredictable nature of jazz improvisation. Another tidbit that obit writers failed to capture was a part of Peterson’s childhood that was instrumental to Peterson’s development not only as a solo musician but as a part of a jazz collaboration. In cassettes of oral interviews to which I was able to access while I was still an extremely slack (but lucky) student in university, I had a strong impression that Peterson was exposed to collaborative music making and tonal balancing by playing with the rest of his family as his father would gather family members (including Oscar's sister, who was at one point Peterson's piano teacher) in weekly jamming sessions where everyone would take turns to play different instruments and produce music in a way that would allow one to be cognizant of the presence of other musicians’ lines.
Peterson’s music will always have a special place in my heart. With reference to classical music, I would characterize Peterson’s playing as Liszt-like, albeit with a jazz flavor –a characterization that was not off the mark as Peterson’s childhood piano teacher was himself a student of the famous Hungarian pianist –while his melodic integrity, punctuated with appropriate improvisational dissonance and rhythmic permutation, was akin to a jazzy parallel to Rachmaninoff’s variations of an original classical theme.2007 is a calendar year that proves to be one of the most brutal and disheartening for a jazz lover: Carlos Valdez, Cecil Payne, Joe Zawinul (a founder of The Weather Report), Max Roach and Michael Brecker are among those who passed away this year. When Peterson's name was added to the list, the intensity of any grief must be (and surely is, at least as it seems to me) levitated to levels previously unfathomable. I will always have the music of Oscar Peterson on Christmas Eve, but Christmas Eve will never have the good grace of the legend. Nevertheless, Christmas Eve will always mark the day that my favorite jazz pianist has, appropriately, returned to the musical heaven from which he arrived 82 years ago...from which the invisible hand has, if ever so temporarily, lent him to mortals like us.