Those of us who toil in the CD racks - whether involved with print reviewing, radio broadcasting, or netcasting - seem to still be sifting through the veritable stacks of recordings issued just before, during, and after the Ellington centennial. There were a plethora of worthy releases spanning the full spectrum of jazz history, ranging from trad to Lincoln Center revivalism to downtown knitters of cross-cultural quilts. Conversely, there were just as many lame attempts to jump on the big band wagon that are best forgotten. This compilation of selections - all produced by Norman Granz, with the exception of one self-produced track - falls somewhere between these two poles. The exact latitude probably depends to a great extent on your affinity for Oscar Peterson's florid, ornamental, arpeggiated style.
I have to come clean up front and state that Peterson has never been one of my favorite pianists. Granted, he can swing like crazy, particularly in the company of a bassist like Ray Brown. Further granted, throughout his 50+ year career in the major leagues of improvisation, he has contributed - sometimes significantly so - to a fistful of notable recordings. Tatum's mantle has always rested a bit too heavily on his shoulders for my taste, however, and the passages - much less full performances - that reach me emotionally have been rare. It's a case of lots of flash but little real fire. Vitality and soul seem to have been sacrificed at the altar of vacant virtuosity that goes nowhere and says nothing. The truly great jazz soloists have always been conscious of telling a story. Peterson's solos often seem like a string of cleverly crafted sentences that never jell into a plot line, develop character(s), or provide a point of view. Imagine, if you will, a Hemingway short story with nothing left but nouns and punctuation marks.
He's at his best here in the lengthy jam on "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," where blues roots are for the most part respected and elaborated on without resorting to the effuse baroque brocade of parallel fifths so prevalent elsewhere. The earthy tenor saxophone of Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, and the canny trumpets of Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry keep things truthful when the rococo flourishes threaten to surface. Peterson fans who don't already own his duo collaborations with the two trumpeters, or the Oscar Peterson Jam album where this track originally appeared, would be better off picking up those recordings (all on Pablo) before considering this one.
Part of the problem with Oscar Peterson Plays Duke Ellington is the somewhat hackneyed repertoire. Most of these pieces have been played to death for years by not only competent jazz musicians, but also by third-rate swing bands, cocktail pianists, and singer-songwriters who claim they "play a little bit of jazz." They're the tunes Mr. Ellington was fond of weaving into those "and then I wrote..." crowd-pleasing medleys that were long a staple of his concert and dance sets. Yes, there are valid reasons why they became standards in the first place; but for goodness sake, if you're going to play them, please at least inject something of your own personality and life experience into the interpretation. As a music fan shopping in your local CD outlet, why settle for smudged carbon copies when there are dozens, hundreds, even thousands of Duke's original recordings - no two exactly alike - still available?
"Lady of the Lavender Mist" is the only real ringer in this batch of Ellingtonia. Unfortunately, Peterson polishes off the rough edges of this sadly neglected mood piece in his solo piano reading, excising Duke's lovely floating dissonances in favor of trite tinkling that is perilously close to the ambiance of a piano bar. You've got to give him credit for tackling this demanding tune, but the final product ranks as a major disappointment, particularly taking into consideration the few times it's been recorded.
Mr. Peterson has his followers. If you're new to the ranks of his devotees, and don't already have the Pablo albums from which this sampler is culled, this disc may please your ears. Other more casual listeners, or those less attuned to his muse, should steer clear.