It has been argued, fairly persuasively, that pianist Oscar Peterson was the last American musical artist that achieved fame solely through the virtuosity of his talents. No gimmicks, no special lights and whistles; he was simply the best at his craft. And his craft was the ability to swing in a trio format like no one else this side of Art Tatum. This essential 5 disc set finds him at the early stages of his career with Verve Records, where he was the “house band” (along with Herb Ellis-Barney Kessel/g and Ray Brown/b for the studios when the label had artists including Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Buddy DeFranco, Ben Webster, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Stan Getz, just to name a handful.
The beauty of these albums, besides being the first time they are available to us in any major format, is that they capture the genius at the early stages, and therefore the most exciting, of his career. And, just like producer Norman Granz achieved with Ella Fitzgerald, he had the band compile a collection of “Songbooks” to display the artist in a way that could be accessible to plebeian ears.
The list of songwriters that Peterson and company choose from is standard fare, including Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rogers, Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen. The real ringers that usually get ignored are Jimmy McHugh, Harry Warren and Vincent Youmans. Never heard of Youmans? How about “Tea For Two,” “Carioca” and “Sometimes I’m Happy”? As for McHugh, you get some Tin Pan Alley beauties like “Don’t Blame Me,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “I’m In the Mood for Love” while Warren’s pen was responsible for “Lullaby of Broadway,” “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me” and “I Only Have Eyes for You.”
The level of excitement, swing and lyricism is consistently jaw dropping, with Kessel and Ellis supplying the irresistible pulse and tasty solos for the maestro. The interplay is almost telepathic, doing some wonders as they’re off to the races on “Cottontail” and jaunting with style during “Love Walked In.”
The only thing to compare this with is the collection of Art Tatum solo and small group masterpieces from about the same period. Like them, or with Bach’s Solo Cello works, getting started can be an overwhelming challenge due to the uniformity of the virtuosity, but you just have to get started somewhere and let the waves of greatness overwhelm you like a wave at Waikiki Beach. This is what dreams are made of!