Oscar Peterson returned to Ottawa on April 4 – in memory and in welcome celebration, if not in person.
The memories were provided by the German Embassy, who organized the event to celebrate the historical connections between Germany and the Canadian jazz icon. The celebration was provided by the modern reinterpretation of Peterson's music by the Dave Young Trio (along with many Canadian memories). And the combination garnered a standing ovation at the end of the evening.
The celebration had been held in Montreal the previous night, and was repeated in Toronto the following night. Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien (a friend and admirer of Peterson for many years) and his wife Aline attended along with many other Ottawa jazz fans, packing the NAC Fourth Stage.
Canadians are so used to thinking of Oscar Peterson as one of our own, that sometimes we forget that the pianist had fans all over the world. The German ambassador to Canada, Georg Witschel, who introduced the evening, explained that one of those fans was German self-made businessman and audiophile Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, the founder of the German jazz music label MPS.
For six years, starting in 1963, Peterson visited Villingen, a small village in Germany's Black Forest, every year to play privately for Brunner-Schwer and his guests and to be recorded by Brunner-Schwer. Then for another three years, from 1969 to 1972, Brunner-Schwer recorded Peterson playing in public concerts in Germany. The results were, as Witschel noted, even more "relaxed and inspired" than in front of a huge audience.
Brunner-Schwer's son, Mathias, reopened Brunner-Schwer's recording studio three years ago, and was one of the speakers brought in by the embassy to talk about the music created by this collaboration.
Although he was only 11 when Peterson first visited his family. Mathias Brunner-Schwer told the audience that he had vivid memories of the visits. "Oscar's personality and physique filled a room," he said. "Oh, what a man! Like God, or a Godfather."
For the first visit, Mathias said, Brunner-Schwer had Peterson picked up in a stretch Cadillac Fleetwood from that evening's concert in Zurich. He arrived at the house around midnight. "He jumped up and embraced my father", and said he was honoured to be there.
Peterson started to play about 1 a.m. The musicians played in a large main room in the house, with the recording board in a room above, and there were conflicts between Oscar's need to be able to see his other two musicians (Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen) and Brunner-Schwer's need to isolate the musicians in order to get the cleanest sound.
The name of the label, MPS, stood for "Most Perfect Sound", he said, and Brunner-Schwer built his own analog mixing console and other equipment to optimize the sound quality.
Over the years, a strong friendship developed between the Brunner-Schwer family and Peterson. On the walls of the Fourth Stage, the embassy posted a series of posters showing family photos of Peterson's visits to the Brunner-Schwers. In one photo, Peterson is helping wash dishes; in another he is reclining on an ornate double-poster bed talking to Hans Georg. And there were many pictures of him in the studio: playing, of course, but also listening to the recordings. Mathias said that the normal sequence of a recording session was to play for an hour, and then listen to the recording for an hour.
The embassy also showed a short German film, "The Oscar Peterson Story", that included footage shot at the Brunner-Schwer house showing the family and Peterson in informal scenes, as well as listening to Peterson play. "He was part of the family; he had dinner and lunch with us and spent free time [with us] at Lake Constance," Mathias said.
Mathias said that it was their mutual love of music that linked his father and Peterson. His father did not speak English really well, he said, but it was still better than Peterson's German. "Oscar's German was very, very bad [laughing]". When necessary, they called in a translator.
Most of the recordings Peterson made with Brunner-Schwer were released on six LPs, which have been re-released as a four-CD set (still in print) called Exclusively for My Friends. On them, Peterson plays with both his classic trios: bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen, as well as Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis.
90 minutes of Oscar which have never been released
The exception is 90 minutes of tapes which have never been released, Mathias said. While his partnership, HGBS, owns the tapes, they don't have the rights to release them to the public. At the Toronto concert on Thursday, he was hoping to talk to Peterson's widow, Celine, about negotiating an agreement to release that music as Lost Tapes 2.
The widow of Duke Ellington attended the Montreal concert, along with three of her children, he said. There, he and HGBS CEO Friedhelm Schulz were finally able to meet with her about some unreleased Ellington recordings which Brunner-Schwer had made. They hadn't known whom to contact in order to get the release rights for the recordings, and were delighted to finally be able to start the process.
The Oscar Peterson connection proved a gateway to other jazz artists, Mathias said: Brunner-Schwer later recorded Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie, among many others. Brunner-Schwer discovered pianist George Duke in 1965 in San Francisco while on holiday in California. "He saw him play in a jazz club and then he recorded him two days later, during his vacation."
A cultural monument
In 1983, Brunner-Schwer, recognizing that the industry was moving from LPs to CDs, decided to sell about 80% of his catalog to Universal Music, including the released Peterson recordings. He died in 2004 (three years before Peterson); in 2009, Mathias assumed ownership of the studio, with HGBS recording there.
Schulz noted that it is now the only recording studio in Europe which is officially recognized as a cultural monument.
Mathias retained the analog equipment in the studio and continues to record with it; HGBS is releasing six to eight recordings a year, both jazz and classical. He added a 97-key Bösendorfer Imperial grand piano, and the studio is now specializing in piano music. He said they hoped to work with the son and the daughter of Duke Ellington soon.
HGBS recently released a tribute recording to Peterson called Hello, Oscar, recorded by four Dutch jazz musicians, and inspired by Peterson's 1969 MPS recording Hello, Herbie.
Dave Young: honouring Oscar's tradition
Coincidently, a Canadian musician, bassist Dave Young, also released an album in 2011 dedicated to Peterson, Aspects of Oscar. It was nominated for a 2012 Juno Award for Best Traditional Jazz Album.
The embassy invited Young to play at the Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto concerts, and he brought two of the four other musicians who played on the album – Terry Clarke on drums and Robi Botos on piano.
Young introduced the music as "compositions by Oscar Peterson or arrangements we played countless times." And he had the experience to say that: he played with Peterson off and on over three decades. "I started playing with him in 1975, and I did about a year then, and then I went back in the 80s and played for three years. I went back in the 90s and played for a couple years. And then I went back for the last two of three years." Clarke also played with Peterson.
On the album, Young said "the Oscar Peterson years were some of the most exciting and challenging times for me and accounted for a major improvement in my performance level. ... His original compositions have a special place in my heart and still evoke a smile when I think back to the hours of rehearsal we spent 'fine tuning' this music."
Big shoes to fill
At the Ottawa concert, he introduced the second set by reminiscing how Peterson and his musicians would make detailed set lists and then ignore them or play the pieces in a completely different order: "after a while it got to be a guessing game." He assured the audience that this trio would stick to its list.
That list contained about half originals and half pieces composed by Peterson. There was lots of energy: even a ballad like "Falling in Love with Love" was played in a swinging style, and originals like "Cake Walk" were even faster. After one blues number in the first set, Young commented that "of course we used to play it twice as fast but we have to have pity on the piano player. He has big shoes to fill."
Young often took the lead in playing the melody: he introduced Peterson's lesser-known composition, "Goodbye Old Friend" (dedicated to bassist Oscar Pettiford), with an extended and lyrical bass solo. But Botos and Clarke easily held their own, Botos particularly beautifully in his solo introduction to Charlie Chaplin's "Smile". Clarke showed a huge dynamic range, from barely there on brushes or mallets just filling in the edges, to striding forward with assertive sticks work.
But the most notable pieces were by Peterson: "Wheatland" from The Canadian Suite in the first set, and the three sections of Peterson's adaptation of Bach that ended the concert. The last piece, "Bach Blues", in particular proved that classical influence could comfortably co-exist with a driving beat and a bluesy feel, and so energized the audience that they quickly jumped to their feet at the end.
Almost all the pieces played at the Ottawa concert were included on Aspects of Oscar. After the concert, Young said he "chose that material because I enjoyed it and we played many of those tunes quite a lot in [Peterson's] repertoire."
When asked what it felt like to play Oscar's music without him, Young said simply, "I feel like I'm playing the music."
"With Robi playing piano, I'm not thinking about it at all that he's not here; I'm just thinking we're making this music come alive again so that's the main thing. We're honouring his tradition."
– Alayne McGregor