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Oscar Peterson – ‘A Time For Love. Live In Helsinki 1987’

Oscar Peterson – A Time For LoveLive In Helsinki 1987

(Mack Avenue MAC1151 – CD review by Mark McKergow)

This double CD set finds Canadian piano maestro Oscar Peterson with his quartet in 1987 on the last night of a long tour. The results are a feast of exuberant, classic high-quality jazz, a 35-year-old time capsule which still sounds freshly minted and bursting with Peterson panache.

October and November 1987 were busy months for the Oscar Peterson Quartet. Starting with four dates in Brazil, the group crossed the Atlantic and jumped right into a 14-show European tour culminating in Finland. This is the final show, recorded by Finnish national broadcaster YLE in Helsinki’s Kultuuritalo hall. The sleeve notes from Peterson’s wife Kelly recalls the end-of-term atmosphere among musicians who didn’t have to get up tomorrow, go to another gig and get ready to perform again.  

We are told there was no set list – this group had been playing together for many years and Peterson would simply start playing an introduction to lead into the next number. This is demonstrated as the show opens with Martin Drew on drums, then Dave Young on double bass, then Joe Pass’s guitar joining a groove – which stops when Peterson comes on stage and leads into Cool Walk, a swaggering gospelly original and the band comes in again with the slower tempo. It’s a swinging start, feeling like a pendulum which is moving from side to side with tiny movements and then gradually increases the amplitude until it’s fairly bouncing along. Passtakes his first guitar solo with good clarity, unafraid of racing along with semiquaver runs, and playing the loyal lieutenant throughout, even occasionally sounding a bit stretched – something the leader can never be accused of with his digital dexterity.

The first CD consists of Peterson’s own compositions and presents a fine menu with two real belters (Sushi and Cakewalk) bookending the tender Love Ballade and A Salute To Bach, a 20 minute stroll around Bach-ish progressions and idioms which keeps things interesting with a variety of styles, a rare bass solo for Dave Young and the final section Bach’s Blues stompingly closing the circle (as Bach always did) back to the starting point.   

The second CD moves from originals to standards, and of course it’s with this repertoire that Peterson gained his titanic reputation in the 1950s with Norman Granz’s Jazz At The Philharmonic series and later his Pablo record label.  Peterson nods to his heroes with Benny Goodman’s Soft Winds and Johnny Mandel’s haunting A Time For Love, takes on Bill Evans’ Waltz For Debbie by removing much of the waltz, and a six-tune Ellington medley from A-Train to Caravan via C-Jam Blues and Lush Life. Peterson does cede the stage to Joe Pass for When You Wish Upon A Star… but there is no mistaking who the star really is.

And who is the fourth man?  British drummer Martin Drew played with Peterson’s various outfits for thirty years. A regular with Ronnie Scott over the same period, Drew was a genius at tight time-drumming and sensitive accompaniment – which is probably why Peterson rated him so highly. His work is impeccable throughout this recording.  And to show who’s boss, he doesn’t get even a four-bar break to himself. Drew must have been OK with this – no doubt the dosh was very good over an extended period.  Musically, this is a long way from the Bill Evans/Scott Le Faro/Paul Motian trio model of equal participation. 

To sum up, this is a fizzingly good live album from one of the piano greats, near the height of his powers. Heart attacks and strokes were to come, and it’s wonderful to have this performance delivered to us 35 year later. It would make a great Christmas gift for any friend or family member who is even vaguely interested in jazz. And if they are more inclined to Ornette Coleman or Anthony Braxton, get them the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s Where Rivers Meet recording instead.

Link: A Time For Love on Mack Avenue website 

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