A Tribute to Oscar Peterson

By Andrew Litton

Conductor Andrew Litton shares his love for Oscar Peterson’s pianism ahead of a special London recital dedicated to the jazz great

I was born in New York City and grew up as an only child in a household where classical music was listened to 24/7. At the suggestion of my kindergarten teacher, I started piano lessons one month shy of my sixth birthday. I attended my first performance at the Metropolitan Opera (the final season of the Old Met when I was six and saw, thanks to my parents, every single major classical music event of note for the next decade. I attended recitals by star pianists such as Horowitz, Rubinstein, Richter, Gilels and Watts. I was also lucky enough to see every original cast Broadway musical from 1965 to 1982. This meant I had a healthy exposure to the Great American Songbook. It also meant I had yet to discover jazz.

I had a party for my 16th birthday and one of my friends and schoolmates, a chap named David Frankel (who has grown up to be a successful Hollywood director – The Devil Wears PradaThe Big YearHope Springs, etc.), bought me an LP that sported a teal-colored album cover with the words: Tracks – Oscar Peterson Piano Solo. I’d never heard of the guy! When my party was over, curiosity got the better of me and I put on the album. The sounds of an infectiously joyous up-tempo Give Me the Simple filled my bedroom. and I was hooked!

I became obsessed with Oscar, buying every LP I could find and then, when CDs first appeared, replicated the entire collection in the new format. I dreamt of hearing him live. I got a few chances at Carnegie Hall in the late 1970s. In the meantime, my conducting career started. I decided I wanted to be a conductor at the age of ten and in 1982, at the age of 22. I won the Rupert Foundation Conducting Competition in London. My London debut was with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) in January 1983, and it was the beginning of a long and wonderful relationship. In the summer of 1984, I was conducting the RPO in the André Previn Festival at London’s Southbank in a concert starring the amazing Buddy Rich. Two nights later, Oscar was appearing with his quartet (Joe Pass, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, and Martin Drew). I sheepishly asked the then chairman of the RPO, John Bimson (still one of the greatest horn players I have worked with) if he would introduce me. I wanted to meet my hero as a conductor of the RPO and not just as a fan. It probably wouldn’t have mattered. Oscar was so nice to everyone who came to meet him and always had a smile and time for you no matter who you were.

The same year I won the conducing competition, I also won the job as assistant conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO in Washington, DC under Mstislav Rostropovich. Oscar came to play every summer in the 1980s at Wolf Trap, the NSO’s summer home in Virginia. Of course I was there, and ran backstage to greet my hero. The CD cover photo belay was taken backstage in July 1985. Fast-forward to summer 2003 and I was now heading Sommerfest, my own summer festival featuring the Minnesota Orchestra. I introduced a jazz component to the programming and invited Oscar and his quartet. Imagine the incredible thrill I felt standing on the Minneapolis Orchestra Hall stage and saying: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Oscar Peterson!"

A year or so later, I was at a record producer friend’s 50th birthday party in London, where he had asked three of us to provide some musical entertainment. Stephen Hough played some Brahms and I played some Gershwin, and when Steven Osborne sat down, he began What I instantly recognized as an Oscar Peterson arrangement. When the applause died down, I asked him where he had found the music, since I knew it hadn’t been written down. He blithely responded that he had taken the arrangement straight from the CD! He had done quite a few songs, in fact. When I nervously asked whether or not he had transcribed my all-time favorite Oscar track, Little Girl Blue, he nodded and said, “Absolutely!” At this point, I couldn’t contain my excitement and offered him anything he wanted for a copy (I must have sounded every bit like Herod in Salome)! He smiled and said he would happily send me the music. Two days later, the song arrived in the post, along with a few others he had transcribed. Deciphering Steven’s musical notation turned out to be an unexpected hurdle, but the fact that he had actually done the hard part – putting down on paper all those brilliant Peterson harmonics and riffs – was almost too good to be true.

Little Girl Blue became part of my repertoire and I used it as an occasional encore as well as playing it at my late mother’s memorial service. Eventually, I decided to branch out and started to work on a few other transcriptions, some of which were actually starting to appear in print, and that is where the idea for this recording began.

The 12 songs I’ve recorded come from seven different commercial recordings and span four decades of Oscar’s legacy. The overwhelming majority of Oscar’s recorded output was with his trio or quartet, but I wanted to feature his solo piano work because when he played alone, he often eschewed his dazzling virtuosity, making it truly possible to hear the amazing colors and voicing in his playing, the feathering of the sustaining pedal (only Horowitz had such a pedal technique!), the achingly beautiful original harmonies and the total command of the instrument. This explains why Oscar has proved so popular with classical musicians. He did things daily at the piano while spontaneously improvising that the rest of us spend a lifetime trying to achieve.

As part of the Rhinegold Live concert series. Andrew Litton will give a one-off recital to celebrate Oscar Peterson’s legacy on 2 June at 6:30 pm. The event, held at Conway Hall in London, is free and includes a complimentary drinks reception for all ticket holders. A post-concert Q&A will be conducted by Claire Jackson, editor of IP. To apply for tickets please visit www.rhinegold.co.uk/live.

Courtesy of International Piano, May 2014