Oscar Peterson: Easter Suite for Jazz Trio
Oscar Peterson, piano
Neils-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, bass
Martin Drew, drums
Recorded at The South Bank Show, London, 1984
- Composer’s commentary
Picture format: NTSC 4:3
Sound format: PCM Stereo / Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles (bonus): German, French, Spanish, Italian
Running time: 50 mins
No. of DVDs: 1 (DVD 5)
R E V I E W S:
Some British viewers may well recall that the
Easter Suite was first performed on Melvyn Bragg's South Bank Show in 1984, which presented many wide ranging programmes. This oneRead more concentrated on a performance of the suite and an interview about it between Peterson and Bragg, with Niels-Henning Orstedt Pedersen (bass) and Martin Drew (drums) making pertinent contributions as well.
That said, I was puzzled by Marcus Woelfle's booklet notes which claim - I'm assuming Stephan Richter's translation is accurate - that the programme has become `a yearly ritual'. I assume this means on television at Easter. I also assume that by BBC he means ITV. In any case, it's baloney.
The Easter story is a daunting one. It's interesting and in many ways revealing to hear Peterson talk of the descriptive, narrative passages, and his use of specific rhythms, church music, and gospel. It's also good to hear from Pedersen, who is cryptically unconvinced by the work (or so it seems), but plays magnificently nonetheless. Drew demonstrates a military technique to reinforce the trial scene. His work on brushes was always exemplary. When I saw the trio at Ronnie Scott's around this time the evening was magnetic, and Drew played no small part in that energy quotient.
Bragg's questions are engagingly open-ended. Peterson responds candidly and drolly. He doesn't go in for portentousness. I would play the interview segment before watching the unedited suite footage. You'll get a bit of it, not least the jazz waltz allusion. The music is enjoyable but hardly top drawer Peterson, notwithstanding his obvious devotion and commitment. There are strangely unfocused segments. Still,
Why Have You Betrayed Me is utterly beautiful - although it sounds like a Jacques Brel song. There's certainly nothing wrong with that, but it hints at the kind of stylistic disunity that abounds in the classical/jazz/Gospel/popular song melange. The hints of Bach and lullaby in
Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me are equally strongly felt but it's when Peterson moves away from direct narrative - I'm thinking of the movement that inspires some of his funkiest Blues playing,
Are You Really King of the Jews - that he sounds most like `himself'.
This suite has considerable cachet among many Peterson aficionados, so this restored performance, live in the TV studio will be most welcome. The sadness, of course, is that all three musical protagonists are now dead.
-- Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb International
PETERSON Easter Suite • Oscar Peterson (pn); Niels-Henning Ørstedt Pedersen (db); Martin Drew (perc) • ARTHAUS 107063 (DVD: 34: 40 Text and Translation)
& Peterson comments on the composition of the suite (15:07)
The concept in our society of a jazz composer has changed drastically over the decades, largely because of the long evolution of Duke Ellington in that vein. We’ve moved far from the concept of jazz pieces, used solely as a springboard for improvisation, as being “compositions,” but rather “tunes.” In Ellington’s wake, of course, came such geniuses as George Russell, Thelonious Monk, Eddie Sauter, Charles Mingus, and Bill Evans, who wrote more extended pieces with intriguing chord structures and extended melodic lines. Into this fray, at the age of 59, stepped Oscar Peterson, the brilliant Canadian-born jazz pianist whom many heard as the successor to Art Tatum.
But Tatum, for all his keyboard genius and virtuosity, never really composed anything worth remembering (a couple of tunes, neither of them standards), and Peterson wasn’t known as a composer either when he was asked to write a jazz suite on the Easter story. In the interview portion of London’s South Bank Show, which also premiered the suite, Peterson explains that he accepted the commission with trepidation, which makes perfect sense. He was unsure of his abilities to translate such a tragic story into jazz language, or if it was even feasible to do so. He purposely avoided listening to other settings of the story, such as the Bach Passions, because he didn’t want to be influenced by what others did. By and large, he chose more subdued moods and tempos than he usually did, including what he termed a “simplistic classical melody,” with generally fine results. The bass line is used alternately as a secondary solo voice, carrying the melody when Peterson is playing embellishments at the keyboard, and as a sort of cantus firmus, while the drums are used as much for color as for rhythmic propulsion.
Not surprisingly, the Easter Suite is tonal and melodic, two things that automatically put it outside the classical-music mainstream of its day. (Folks like Pierre Boulez refuse to accept music like this as even existing.) Yes, it is, as Peterson described it, a jazz interpretation of events from the Last Supper to the Resurrection, and as such it is more a reflection on those events, but then again so are Bach’s Passions. What the Easter Suite lacks in scale or grandeur, it makes up for in meditative mood.
I was particularly struck by the incredible singing tone of Niels Pedersen’s bass. He almost makes of it a vocal commentary on Peterson’s piano, particularly in “The Garden of Gethsemane.” In the end, however, one must admit that despite Peterson’s early studies in classical music, there is no classical form to this suite. Is this a negative thing? I’m not so sure. Any composer can only be true to who he or she is. Even with years of further formal training before he embarked on a jazz career, Peterson would still be Peterson. He couldn’t be Russell, or Mingus, or Third Stream composer Gunther Schuller, and what he produces here is true to form. The particularly haunting melody of “Why Have You Betrayed Me?,” with its lilting habanera rhythm, is a high point of the suite, while “The Trial” begins deep in the bass range of the keyboard, an almost ominous 4/4 rhythm with paradiddle triplets played on the drums, creating an ominous mood. “Jesus Christ Lies Here Tonight” is perhaps the least original, as both the chord sequence and the opening melody are borrowed from Cole Porter’s 1941 tune “Everything I Love,” albeit played in 3/4. I’m not certain, however, that Peterson was conscious of the borrowing.
In short, although this is not a work on par with Mingus or Russell, who both knew, understood, and used much more classical structure in their music, it is truly exceptional Oscar Peterson. I was stunned to discover that no one ever asked him to record the work, despite its warm reception at the time and the high esteem in which it is held by jazz fans, but to a large extent Peterson’s happy style of jazz, synthesizing elements of swing and bebop, was considered passé in the 1980s. He was still admired for his extraordinary technique, but the avant-garde had taken over and jazz was considered to be so much further beyond what Peterson was doing. It’s really a shame, because the Easter Suite is really good music for what it is, worth hearing and even rehearing. This DVD belongs in the collection of every jazz fan, and I would even recommend it to those who wish to hear a sincere and hugely talented artist express some of his deepest feelings and convictions in jazz terms.