Oscar Peterson ‘Exclusively For My Friends’ 8CD box set (MPS) 5/5

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The original set that came out in a lovely vinyl box set has been a treasure for piano jazz lovers for several decades and did eventually come out on CD. That said, this expanded edition trumps those earlier versions and can now truly be considered the comprehensive and definitive guide to Oscar Peterson on MPS label, though by no means the complete picture overall since he recorded prolifically for MPS and Verve during the 1960s and other MPS albums that have found their way onto CD over the years. However, what is historically significant about the recordings in this expanded box set taken as a whole is that never was Oscar Peterson heard in a more empathetic nor intimate environment and the personal relationship he built up with MPS founder Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer made for some of the most stunning studio recordings of Peterson’s career, and certainly the ones where Oscar performed in his most relaxed manner. The original sides were rightly feted and optimally re-mastered here using a pure analogue mastering process have never sounded better. Any listener coming to them for the first time will be immediately struck by how at ease Oscar Peterson sounds and MPS had a magical way of bringing out the very best in him. Part of the special alchemy that morphed out of this collaboration was that Oscar Peterson was allowed to select the material and be present at the mixing sessions. This was agreed to by Hans Georg and meant there was a genuine input by pianist at various stages and not simply reserved for the performance part.

Collectors will naturally be most curious about what is new and, in this case, they will have the greatest of pleasure when discovering two CDs crammed with unreleased material dating between 1963 and 1971. This means a large number of selections by the classic trio that included Ray Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums. Later editions swapped and changed, with bassist Sam Jones a regular alongside either Bobby Durham or Louis Hayes on drums, are of a similarly high standard and feature varied line-ups including the occasional vocalist (and singers in the case of Singers Unlimited) and quartet, harking back to his 1950s trios that comprised guitar and bass. The first of these CDs covers a relatively shorter time-span, from 1965 to 1968. Interestingly, two original Peterson compositions are showcased, this aspect of the musician sometimes being largely overlooked, with ‘Squeaky blues’, being an uptempo vehicle while ‘It’s impossible’, is a ballad that betrays a love of impressionistic western classical music. Equally, a lovely Ray Brown piece, ‘Gravy Waltz’, is included here and is a gorgeous uptempo number. Standards once again comprise the majority of the pieces on offer and a frenetic intro to Bobby Timmons’ soul-jazz opus, ‘Moanin’, here receives a mid-tempo and quite expansive treatment from 1967. Rodgers and Hart were favourite composers of the pianist and a lyrical interpretation of ‘My romance’ impresses as does a bright and breezy take on ‘Let’s fall in love’, with playful intro.

The second of the new CDs of material is a hymn to the Great American songbook and begins with a truly sumptuous solo rendition of ‘Autumn leaves’ while Errol Garner’s ‘Misty’ continues the solo work with Peterson using the full range of his instrument. He is positively Evansesque on a trio take of ‘The folks who live on the hill’, while arguably the strongest of any of the trio outings hitherto unheard comes in Neil Hefti’s wonderful ‘Li’l darlin’ from 1963. Exquisite and somewhat sedate accompaniment by Brown and Thigpen makes for a near definitive take. Peterson thought carefully about how to individualise evergreen standards and mark his own distinctive imprint upon them and this would appear to be the case of ‘Body and Soul’ that, rather than the standard slow ballad treatment, is taken at a leisurely mid-tempo pace, and Oscar uses the full range of the notes with some deeply blues-inflected hues. Comparisons with other pianists interpretations are inevitable and ‘Satin Doll’ was recorded in 1963 at just about the same time period that a then young McCoy Tyner was emerging as a highly gifted and individual soloist and this version compares favourably with Tyner’s more swinging approach that, in addition, used a strong Latin tinge in the form of a percussionist.

The MPS collaboration sadly ended in tears in 1972 and founder Schwer-Brunner was deeply affected and upset by the contractual split since he adored Peterson’s playing. Perhaps the best way to sum up this unique relationship is to quote Oscar himself on the subject: ‘I don’t know how to summarize my friendship with Hans Georg. It started off like most friendly business relationships, but grew into a more personal involvement, in which we shared our deepest thoughts on a wide variety of matters’. An immaculate sixty page booklet leaves not stone unturned with graphics of the master tapes and photos of the original album covers with full liner notes, and Oscar in performance in the Black Forest studio. A magnificent tribute to the work of Oscar Peterson and indispensable for anyone with a serious interest in the modern jazz piano.

Tim Stenhouse