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The best of Peterson with Granz

By Oscar Peterson

Pablo / Fantasy Records: 2003

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This review first appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of Turbula.

Widely considered the greatest piano player of his generation, and equaled in technical prowess only by Art Tatum in the entire history of jazz, Oscar Peterson's best years to date came under the guidance of promoter/producer Norman Granz.

With Granz' passing on Thanksgiving 2002, it seems an appropriate time to issue an overview of Peterson's career with his mentor.

A new four-disc set from Pablo Records, "Dimensions," does just that.

Interestingly, while Granz didn't found Pablo Records until 1973, he had numerous unissued recordings of Peterson he'd made while running his other labels (Verve, Clef, Norgran), recordings he'd not included when he sold off those labels.

So this collection actually allows us to trace Peterson's career from his first gigs with Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic concert series in the early 1950s up through the mid-1980s, when Granz retired and sold Pablo to Fantasy. During that period, Peterson didn't record exclusively for Granz – but the vast majority of his recordings were under Granz until the 1990s.

Perhaps more than anything else, what this collection illustrates is how very unfair is Peterson's reputation for playing technically astounding but emotionally cold music (a charge rarely leveled at Tatum). If Peterson's playing doesn't have the instantaneous swing of Count Basie, it still has a warmth and accessibility that belies Peterson's supposed lack of soul.

Whether solo or in company (including his famous 1950s trio with guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Ray Brown), in studio or in front of an audience, Peterson's music has a sustained if subdued swing to it. He combines the elegance of Ellington with the exuberance of Basie, and couples both to the prodigious chops of Tatum.

He is, in short, a monster of the keyboards – a man so wholly intertwined with his instrument that he could no more stop playing and live than you or I could choose to cease breathing.

The liner notes for this collection are both informative and a joy to read; the recording information is complete, and there are beautiful photographs throughout.

Given the dozens and dozens of albums Granz made of Peterson, a comprehensive compilation would be cost-prohibitive. This set, though, captures an accurate portion of Peterson's career and will serve all but the most die-hard fans quite well as the most complete collection of his work one could ever need.