Piano Summit Salutes Oscar Peterson

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Kenny Barron and bassist Dave Young perform in an Oscar Peterson tribute concert at Symphony Center on April 7. Todd Rosenberg

(Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

The evening of April 7 saw a rare procession of mainstream piano mastery cross the stage of Symphony Center in Chicago—Kenny Barron, Ramsey Lewis, Benny Green, Bill Charlap, Renee Rosnes, Robi Botos, and Audrey Morris. But the uncontested star of the evening was Oscar Peterson.

A year ago Peterson’s widow, Kelly, released a three-CD remembrance called Oscar, With Love. She had spent a year bringing together 16 of his peers in a collection of mostly his compositions, all recorded on Peterson’s own Bösendorfer in his home studio near Toronto. Most were solo pieces. A few were accompanied by bassist Dave Young, who had worked with Peterson in the 1980s. Seven of those players (plus Young) converged at Symphony Center April 7. The event was hosted by Peterson’s daughter, Celine, who at 25 will likely preside as a knowledgeable and convincing advocate for her father’s work for at least the next half century.

The concert proceeded through 17 songs with the Spartan simplicity of a formal recital. A single Bösendorfer grand stood center stage under concert lighting. There were with no microphones, no showy staging, no rear-projected visuals. The message was clear. Music was to be the business of this night.

Charlap took the stage first wearing a gray suit and dark red tie, setting a common dress code for most of the evening. He took his place and began the evening with a quiet, spacious melody that borrowed briefly from “Danny Boy.” No title was announced, but on the album the song was called “Announcement,” a tune I’m not familiar with among Peterson’s works. Charlap left the stage without comment as Chicago native Ramsey Lewis walked out to a small standing reception from local fans. Again without any comment, he offered an unfamiliar ballad, “If I Love Again,” performed solo with a mix of simplicity and flowery elegance.

Celine Peterson broke the silence next and introduced Robi Botos, a younger Peterson protégé who unleashed a swirling and bracing barrage of high powered Peterson-esque virtuosity. The tune was one of his own, “Smedley’s Attack,” one of the night’s few non-Peterson compositions. It was fast, percussive, almost wanton by the evening’s more dreamy norms. It came as a welcome wake-up call to the crowd.

Kenny Barron then appeared in a nimbus of implicit authority, his stately presence palpable even before he sat down. Accompanied by Young, he dialed the heat back down to room temperature with another unrecorded Peterson piece, “Ballad For Benny Carter.” The melodic lines here had an obvious familiarity, following clearly the famous Bing Crosby standard from 1944, “Sunday Monday Or Always.”

Renee Rosnes deployed brisk clarity with Young on “Bossa Beguine” from Peterson’s 1965 Blues Etude. Benny Green, another of Peterson’s carefully-chosen students, dipped into the same period for “Cool Walk,” an OP variation on “Jada” that let him brandish a Petersonian interlude of arpeggios in which left and right hands paralleled each other. Charlap and Rosnes returned for a fast, four-handed romp through “Sushi” (he on bass, she on treble) from Peterson’s trio reunion tour of 1990. The first half ended with a rare appearance by singer-pianist Audrey Morris, whose lovely “Look What You’ve Done To Me Now” observed the link between Peterson and Nat Cole.

The second half was dominated by Peterson’s ballads. He wrote with a sense of thematic clarity. But few of his pieces had a substantial performance life outside of his own repertoire. So with no household anthems to applaud, the packed house sat in appreciative silence without any audible flurries of recognition. The one exception was Charlap, who midway through the second act, violated the evening’s format with a five-minute medley of two jazz classics, “Indiana” and a rousing “After You’ve Gone.” They blew through the hall like a gust of ocean air, drawing joyous cheers for the first time from an audience that seemed eager for some excitement but felt cloistered in a bit too much calming solemnity.

Otherwise, the music seemed engrossed in its own beauty—and the audience, a bit sedated. Lewis tiptoed sensitively through “Laurentide Waltz,” layering harmonic textures over lucid melodic contours. Baron and Young were at ease in a relaxed medium blues, “The Smudge.” But Green had already turned into the home stretch with a soft, well-dressed reading of “If You Only Knew,” and Rosnes followed in that somber vein with “Love Ballade.”

The glide path was set for a long and lingering landing, beginning with Young’s bass solo on “Goodbye Old Friend,” Green again with “Hymn To Freedom,” and finally Botos doing “When Summer Comes” so soft and seductively you could almost hear the crickets in the night air.

Like the CD set, this concert offered the Oscar Peterson with whom Kelly and daughter Celine were most familiar—the seasoned composer of quiet, reflective, often quite beautiful music. But Peterson’s talent had an immensity to it that made it a commanding force from Bird to Bach, and don’t forget Gershwin. Perhaps as these showcases evolve, some of that younger Peterson excitement and familiarity can be accommodated. DB



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