Transcribin’ the Blues

By Oliver Condy, BBC Music Magazine

Conductor and pianist Andrew Litton was so obsessed with Oscar Peterson’s astonishing improvisations, he couldn’t resist writing them down and recording them, he tells Oliver Condy

Back in November 2012, despite there being a perfectly good Steinway to hand, Andrew Litton shipped a Bösendorfer Imperial grand piano from London’s South Bank up to the wilds of Potton Hall in Suffolk to record his latest disc. Litton is known first and foremost as a fine orchestral conductor, maybe a little less as a pianist of considerable skills, but his obsession with jazz pianist Oscar Peterson is perhaps a new one on all but his family and close friends. For the past few years, Litton has been beavering away at every spare opportunity, transcribing note-for-note the late Canadian pianist’s live recorded improvisations on standard jazz tunes, every one a dazzling nugget of harmonic and technical wizardry, each a glittering flash in the pan, never to be heard again in quite the same way. And the Bösendorfer? Their Imperial model was Peterson’s piano of choice for its light action and rounded tone – so the perfect instrument on which to recreate the Oscar magic.

It’s thrilling to hear Litton, a conductor at the top of his game, talk about Peterson. With wide-eyed excitement, he shares his memories of a pianist he regards as one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. One suspects his admiration has been there from the start, ever since a friend gave him an Oscar Peterson LP for his 16th birthday. “Peterson could do whatever he wanted on the piano,” Litton says of his technique. “The more I saw him play live, the more I was overwhelmed. The recordings were impressive enough, but they were recorded in one take – not like us in the classical music world who need 468!” It took, Litton says, over two months to learn Perdido – something that at the time Peterson played spontaneously. “I still wake up at night in cold sweats over Perdido. That just about killed me!”

Peterson’s extraordinary facility on the piano was grounded in rigorous classical training. As a pupil of Hungarian-born pianist Paul de Marky whose own teacher studied with Franz Liszt, Litton says that Peterson developed into the pianist’s pianist. He told one interviewer about how he learned all the Hanon and Czerny studies. But Peterson’s technique was accompanied by an equally impressive sense of harmony and rhythm. “The impressionistic nature of his jazz – the ninths and elevenths – are straight out of Ravel and Debussy,” Litton explains. “It’s just incredible how he could just sit down and come up with these chords.”

“He didn’t just plonk down a chord; I found that suddenly the second finger in the left hand would be louder than the rest because he wanted the dissonance of a G sharp, for instance. And in classical music, the right pinkie [little finger] is the boss – it’s the melody in a chord, the voice you bring out. Peterson would play that softer so another note in the chord became the prominent voice, and the pinkie became a colour. And you’d think oh my God, this is incredible!”

Listening to Litton’s rollicking, virtuosic Tribute to Oscar Peterson, the herculean task of simply transcribing the notes is instantly apparent. How long did it take him to write some of the improvisations down? ’Weeks and weeks! What I set out to do was to try and glean from his discs all the notes he played; this turned out to be harder than you can imagine because some of them go by awfully quickly!’ He was helped considerably by the iPhone app Slow Down Music Player, a piece of software that does exactly that, reducing the tempo of Peterson’s furious arpeggios and lightning scale-work without altering their pitch. It allowed Litton to ensure every note, as far as possible, was faithful to the original performance. “A lot of the transcriptions I found were wrong and it took several weeks sometimes to proof-read and rewrite them.”

By physically writing out some of the improvisations (pianist Steven Osborne also provided some of his own for the disc), Litton was able to explore Peterson’s mind, like a dissection revealing the secrets of an organism. “The more I worked on this project, the more I was getting into Peterson’s head, and the more fascinating it became. It was not anymore just standing back and observing the canvas, but actually getting in there and discovering what paint was used and what brand of paint.”

Inevitably, the question of whether to include Peterson’s ‘wrong notes’ raised its head on several occasions – could Litton ‘correct’ these ‘mistakes’ or leave them as spontaneous quirks? ’If you’re playing live, you might hit a crack between the notes or something and it becomes part of the fabric of the piece. As a listener, you don’t even notice it. But when you’re tasked with replicating the way someone played something, you think “do I fix that? I know he was going for the A, but do I play the A or the G sharp?”

So has this project inspired Litton to improvise more? He says not, but admits that the experience has left him a finer musician. “The biggest lesson I’ve learned from doing this is just to let music happen. If it’s inside you, it’s going to be true. It’s going to speak. Orchestras with whom I have a relationship often say, ‘You know, we like you because you let us play.’ Maybe that’s what jazz has done for me. And I really believe that what we can take away from the great jazz performers of the 20th century is their incredible ability to speak through their instruments in the most emotional, truthful and honest way. That’s what I hope I can do in classical music.”

Courtesy of BBC Music Magazine, April 2014