Play It Again, Oscar

Play It Again, Oscar

I’ve been occupied recently by a project involving jazz transcription. I’m transcribing a recording that I’ve heard dozens of times before, but I’m finding that none of that listening has prepared me to overcome the elusiveness of Oscar Peterson’s hyper-mercurial playing. The difficulty of parsing his chords and runs is offset, however, by the fascinating subtleties that are revealed in the process. In fact, short of transcribing a passage and then playing it myself (good luck), I don’t think there’s a better way to appreciate the greatness of improvisers like Peterson.

I’m sure all the jazz musicians reading this are asking, “So, what else is new?” As a relative newcomer to the serious study of jazz, the hurdles of learning a new history, a new literature, a new theory of music cast long shadows. In retrospect, I think would have been smarter for me to have gotten hardcore about jazz scholarship and analysis long ago. I’ve been listening to jazz as a moderately informed amateur for years, but if I’d been more assiduous about seeking out more recordings and writings on jazz, I’d certainly be in better shape now. Not to mention all the great music I missed out on: My Miles, Coltrane, and Jobim came at the expense of Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, and Coleman Hawkins, whose “Queer Notions” is an absolute mind-bender.

I encourage you to profit from my mistakes: Learn about everything all the time. When faced with the choice between investigating something and not, investigate. Always! Even if it cuts into your Iron Chef viewing time as it has mine, it’ll pay big dividends down the road, when you have to figure out whether Oscar is playing a C-sharp or a C-natural in that ephemeral six-note chord.

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4 thoughts on “Play It Again, Oscar

  1. stevetaylor

    Great column as always Colin. So do you think transcription will have an effect on your compositional work? For a long time I’ve thought about relationships between jazz (especially hard bop and free jazz) and complex music. I wonder if people have tried transcribing, say Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor with the rhythmic arsenal of complex music.

    Anyway, I think transcription is one of the best forms of ear training there is. Good luck, it’s hard!

  2. Colin Holter

    Good question. I don’t know if I’ll compose differently after working through this transcription, but I’m certainly having to think much harder about things like relative dynamics among chord members than I usually do: Peterson will very often play a rich, chromatic chord with the top note (in this case, part of a familiar melody) pretty loud and the lower, less consonant notes correspondingly softer. It’s quite an effect.

  3. Frank J. Oteri

    Colin, it was a joy to read this. Quite coincidentally, I too recently had an Oscar Peterson epiphany, albeit of a different nature, but which still has made me feel compelled to chime in.

    Certain attributes will make me search endlessly until I find a recording: a microtonal scale; the use of a theremin, mellotron, or vocoder; a non-Western instrument in a Western context or a Western instrument in a non-Western context; or a harpsichord or clavichord; ideally several or all of the above at once.

    Anyway, I recently learned of the existence of an LP of duets on tunes from Porgy and Bess performed by Oscar Peterson on clavichord (!!!) and Joe Pass on guitar. Needless to say I finally tracked it down. For folks unwilling to scour the vinyl bins, an Amazon link to the CD re-issue, which can also allow you to listen to some excerpts of it, is here.

    As far as I know, it’s Peterson’s only recording on the instrument, which is a shame because his performances are extremely nuanced and subtle moments of splendor, including things clavichords can do that other keyboards can’t, come at almost every turn. And Pass proves himself an extraordinary sensitive partner here: the clavichord is almost always a solo instrument since it’s so easy to drown out; I can count experiences of hearing one played with other instruments on the fingers of one hand. Here the two instruments are perfectly matched.

    Peterson and Pass’s Porgy and Bess is a remarkable lesson in performance possibilities as much as it is in re-composition, since while it is always clear that they are playing Gershwin tunes they are also doing something completely individual with them.

  4. Colin Holter

    Wow – that is some wild stuff. I’m a little disappointed to see that they didn’t tackle “Oh Lawd, I’m On My Way,” though! The OP trio, of course, has a Porgy and Bess recording that remedies this deficiency, however.


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