Reissue liner notes

Jazz would seem a most harsh mistress. Why else are its greatest artists met with criticism, derision or disregard when seeking out a new sound or a new setting? Isn’t jazz the sound of surprise? Rock musicians are praised when expanding their musical universe. Jazz musicians seem forced to honor their own shtick.

Oscar Peterson was never one to abide by that. Born on August 15, 1925, in Montreal, Quebec, the pianist has spent more than half of a century charming, challenging and shaping the course of jazz piano. He is known and loved for his historic trios. But he’s also backed nearly every one of the great horn players and singers in jazz. He’s fronted his own big bands and, somewhat more reluctantly, ventured into performing solo piano. He’s even eschewed piano altogether and recorded on the organ, clavichord and electric piano.

On several more rare occasions, Oscar Peterson has been heard fronting a string orchestra. To some, this is the worst crime of all. Hell hath no fury like a preconception of jazz scorned. Some might regard this as a great achievement – a cutting contest with the timeless instrumentation of all great music. Others, however, would convince us that jazz-with-an-orchestra cheapens the credibility of jazz. It’s a search for greater popularity outside of jazz. This, too, it seems is a crime. Indeed, many still cannot forgive Charlie Parker for recording “with strings” over a half a century ago.

Despite all the odds and noise to the contrary, Oscar Peterson seems especially well suited to an orchestra. He knows how to swing with sensitivity and field the blues with a special compassion. Aside from all that, the pianist glides over his keyboard with the gracefulness of a lithe dancer. As pianist Gene Rizzo states in his book, The Fifty Greatest Jazz Piano Players Of All Time (Hal Leonard, 2005), “Peterson references the styles of Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Nat “King” Cole and George Shearing in a very personal way.” But, he adds, “he cannot be mistaken for anyone else.” Indeed, Peterson is an orchestra of influences, an orchestra of ideas and an orchestra of innovative sounds: a man who certainly deserves an orchestra to interact with.

It comes as no surprise then that Oscar Peterson’s orchestral records are so few and far between. Predictably, these records manage to mysteriously escape the notice of critics and discographers too. But just for the record, here are the rare occasions when the pianist has fronted an orchestra with strings: Buddy DeFranco And Oscar Peterson Play George Gershwin (Verve, 1954) and In A Romantic Mood (Verve, 1955), both arranged and conducted by Russ Garcia; Soft Sands (Verve, 1957), arranged and conducted by Buddy Bregman; 0scar Peterson & Nelson Riddle (Verve, 1963); The Personal Touch (Pablo, 1980), A Royal Wedding Suite (Pablo, 1981) and An Oscar Peterson Christmas (Telarc, 1995), all three arranged and conducted by Rick Wilkins; and Trail Of Dreams – A Canadian Suite (Telarc, 2000), arranged and conducted by Michel Legrand.

For Motions & Emotions, his 1969 orchestral recording for the MPS label, Oscar Peterson was perfectly paired with the magisterial talents of arranger Claus Ogerman. Born in Ratibor, Germany, on April 29, 1930, Ogerman studied music and piano and by the early 1950s, was writing and playing piano for German radio big bands. Upon moving to New York in 1959, Ogerman almost immediately began arranging for pop artists like The Drifters, Leslie Gore, Little Eva and Connie Francis, scoring hit after hit, and adding his uniquely identifiable and classically influenced orchestral sound to albums by Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Wes Montgomery and Frank Sinatra.

Ogerman no longer recalls who was inspired to team the two together: “I assume that the impulse came from Oscar or [Peterson’s manager at the time] Norman Granz, who wanted me to work with other artists of his before.” Whatever the genesis of the idea, it makes for a most provocative collaboration. Unlike the pianist’s previous “with strings” records, there is no attempt on Motions & Emotions to cow-tow to the mere cliché of going for pretty or lush. Ogerman doesn’t “cushion” with strings here so much as provide the pianist with effective counterpoint. Peterson, a force of nature on the piano, is not so easily cradled by other sounds. And Ogerman gives the pianist something inspiring to spring forth from with his own ideas, clearly in the jazz realm.

However, it almost didn’t come to be. “The piano available at A&R Studios [the New York studio where the album was scheduled to be recorded],” Ogerman remembers, “was not to Oscar’s liking.”  Peterson refused to record on what he considered an inadequate piano, stating very simply, in his ever-inimitable way, “I don’t like the box.”

Gene Lees further relates in his book, Oscar Peterson: The Will To Swing (Cooper Square Press, 1988): “[MPS Records owner Hans Georg] Brunner-Schwer faced a dilemma. He had committed substantial funds to this recording, including Ogerman’s arranging and conducting fees, the cost of A&R studio, and the salaries of the musicians who sat there waiting, and would be paid whether they played or not. He made a decision; to record the orchestra now and overdub Oscar’s part in Villingen on the piano Oscar liked. Oscar instantly agreed, the session proceeded, and he completed the album later in Villingen.” 

“Sally’s Tomato” ushers in the listener on a warm wave of Ogerman’s flute flourishes and Oscar Peterson’s dancing fingers. This gentle samba, from composer Henry Mancini’s delightful score for the film Breakfast At Tiffany, is, perhaps, the best representation of its two principal’s collaboration. Ogerman, constructing something that Jobim would no doubt thrive within, prompts Oscar Peterson to reveal his signature gift for bringing out a melody’s true loveliness. Oddly, the pianist has explored little else from the melodic Henry Mancini songbook, apart from the occasional performance elsewhere of “Moon River,” also from Breakfast At Tiffany’s, and “Days Of Wine And Roses.”

“Sunny,” written by Bobby Hebb and inspired by the 1963 murder of his brother on the day after president John F. Kennedy’s assassination, has become one of the most covered pop tunes of the 20th century. It’s also been covered by many a jazzman, from Jimmy Smith to Stanley Turrentine. Here, Ogerman ratchets up the pulse by crafting something like an action film theme and Peterson responds in kind with some lively, swinging pianisms. Peterson would later consider “Sunny” again – this time on organ! – with Joe Pass and Ray Brown on his album, The Giants (Pablo, 1974).

“By The Time I Get To Phoenix” receives Peterson’s most graceful ballad treatment. Nurtured by Ogerman’s warm string counterpoint, Peterson explores the underlying emotion of Jimmy Webb’s fine melody and ultimately reveals something more profound than was heard in Glen Campbell’s 1968 hit. Such collaboration transcends mere pop and rivals the transformation into standard fare that both Peterson and Ogerman have achieved individually elsewhere.

“Wandering” is from the pen of New Christy Minstrel singer Gayle Caldwell and originally appeared on her now quite rare folk album Celebration Of Life (A&M, 1969). “Oscar was very fond of the tune,” Ogerman recalls. The arranger hadn’t known about the song before this, but he crafted a stately waltz where Peterson’s piano freely wanders through a reflective daydream of longing and memory. Interestingly, one of Peterson’s most ardent fans, Frank Sinatra, had earlier performed both “Wandering” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” on the Don Costa-arranged album, Cycles (Reprise, 1968). It just goes to show that Peterson, who had recorded an enchanting tribute to the singer with his trio in 1959, was still listening to what Sinatra was up to.

“This Guy’s In Love With You” was first sung by Herb Alpert on a 1968 TV special to his wife. The popular demand for the song led to one of Herb Alpert’s first and only vocal hits and - even more surprisingly - it became the first number one hit scored by the talented and prolific Bacharach/David partnership. Ogerman begins this rendition of the song with a nearly anthem-like quality. Like a shy lover, Peterson takes a quieter, more romantic journey into Bacharach’s attractive melody. But as the pianist works toward his musical climax, cushioned by Ogerman’s ever sensitive string embellishments, the two conspire to conclude their ode to romance with a daring proclamation of the bounty and joy love can bring.

“Wave,” says Claus Ogerman, “is the only song [from the album that] I suggested.” This classic Antonio Carlos Jobim composition, first heard on the composer’s Ogerman-arranged album, Wave (A&M/CTI, 1967) has become a bossa nova standard. Ogerman splashes Peterson with more strings here than he did previously with Jobim. But the arrangement never gets in the way of Peterson’s exquisite finesse of Jobim’s streams of consciousness. “I played the tape later for Jobim,” Ogerman says with a certain quiet pride, “who wanted me to repeat it three or four times again.” Ogerman would go onto refine his particularly sensitive touch to this beautiful melody on João Gilberto’s Amoroso (Warner Bros., 1977) and again on Jobim’s own Terra Brasilis (Warner Bros., 1980). Peterson himself was drawn enough to the melody to explore it again with his trio on the album The Good Life (Pablo, 1973) and as part of a duo on the album Oscar Peterson In Russia (Pablo, 1974).

“Dreamsville,” is the second of two Henry Mancini pieces presented here. This one, from the composer’s music for Blake Edwards’s TV show Peter Gunn, begins with Oscar Peterson’s haunting exploration on solo piano. Not a single note is wasted or added for mere effect. It’s a gorgeous performance that leads into an all-too brief trio-with-strings presentation. Ogerman’s string obligato is a bravura piece of work, much like a delicate sculpture tucked away in the quiet space of a beautiful garden. Here, the pianist and arranger bravely conspire – and succeed – in making one of the great melodies by one of music’s great arrangers all their own.

“Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby” are, of course, from the Beatles. But hearing Oscar Peterson cover these overly familiar tunes is a bit of a surprise since he hadn’t covered the Beatles – like everyone else had – before or since. Ogerman absolutely transforms McCartney’s simple “Yesterday” with a gentle samba rhythm and a striking string refrain. Peterson responds with a playful, almost soulful reflection of the tune’s familiar melody. The otherwise elegiac “Eleanor Rigby” gets one of Peterson’s bluesiest and most welcome readings on the album.

“Ode To Billie Joe” ends the album on a markedly funky note. It’s not that Oscar Peterson couldn’t funk it up when called to do so. For evidence, check out the pianist’s Latinesque Soul Espanõl (Limelight, 1966) or the plugged-in and underrated Night Child (Pablo, 1979). Here, the pianist makes the most of Ogerman’s swinging horns and boogaloo rhythm and, of course, composer Bobbie Gentry’s terrific melody, an oblique but fictional story song from 1967 of a man who jumps up off the Tallahatchie Bridge (which inspired the 1976 film starring Robby Benson as Billie Joe). 

Motions & Emotions represents the true virtuosity of both Oscar Peterson and Claus Ogerman. Despite a recording situation that separated the pianist from his orchestra, this album expresses a true individuality and sensitivity to seemingly opposing natures. As Peterson biographer Richard Palmer correctly notes in his book Oscar Peterson (Spellmount, 1984), “Oscar fronting a large ensemble has always been an exhilarating formula.” The collaboration with Claus Ogerman has added motions and emotions to extend that formula; one that, nearly four decades on, has positively stood the test of time.

Douglas Payne