As part of our round up of some of the best jazz pianists of all time, join us for a trip through some of the most essential Oscar Peterson albums ever recorded.
Widely considered to be one of the great pianists in the history of jazz, Oscar Peterson’s long and decorated career saw him release over 200 recordings, scoop up seven Grammys (amongst dozens of other awards) and perform thousands of concerts worldwide over a period of nearly 7 decades.
Picking just 10 recordings to celebrate the great man is an extremely difficult task, but here is a selection of some of our favourites – as always, let us know your thoughts in the comments section at the end!
On The Town
This extraordinary and intimate live recording (the atmospheric rattling of plates and clinking of glasses in the background making the listener feel as if they were placed in the front row of the audience) was recorded in the summer of 1958, in Peterson’s home country of Canada.
It features Herb Ellis (guitar) and Ray Brown (double bass), who by this point had developed a sixth sense for anticipating what direction their virtuosic band leader may take the music in, and the results are an ultra-slick and highly enjoyable example of this trio at the height of its powers.
All the hallmarks of Peterson’s playing style are on display here, dazzling runs, hard swinging chord melodies and a healthy dose of the blues that leaves the listener wishing that they were there on the night of its recording back in 1958 – highly recommended.
Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson
A follow up to their exquisite collaboration on Webster’s Soulville (released in 1957), this 1959 release sees the saxophonist ably accompanied by Oscar Peterson and his then trio of Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen (drums).
A master in the art of ballad playing, Webster elegantly weaves his way through a set of 7 standards (a particular highlight being his treatment of ‘In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning) and provides fans of Peterson an opportunity to hear the pianist in the role of accompanist, not bandleader.
Peterson listens to Webster intently throughout, and follows his playing unobtrusively.
Whilst it doesn’t feature the fireworks that we come to expect from an Oscar Peterson trio album, it’s a stunning recording and a great example of Peterson’s versatility.
The Trio (1973)
Peterson’s stint with Norman Granz’s ‘Pablo’ recording captured the pianist in the midst of a golden era of creativity, and these live recordings from 1973 with guitarist Joe Pass and double bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen are well worth seeking out.
Whilst Pass and Pederson are exceptional talents in their own right, it is Peterson who stands out, firing on all cylinders as he joyfully romps through a mixture of originals and jazz standards.
His sincere interpretation of Duke Ellington’s ‘Come Sunday’, and cascading blues runs on his own ‘Chicago Blues’ are particular gems.
Stan Getz & The Oscar Peterson Trio
The cool-toned tenor saxophone of Stan Getz proved to be the perfect partner for Oscar Peterson on this iconic meeting from 1957.
Set up by impresario Norman Granz, who was keen on pairing Peterson with different artists from his Jazz at the Philharmonic stable, Getz’s maturity and musicality (much like Ben Webster) demonstrates a different side to the pianist.
Displaying taste and an exquisite light touch, Peterson accompanies Getz beautifully, as the band glide their way through a selection of much-loved tunes from the Great American Songbook, the quartet swinging so hard that the listener doesn’t even register the lack of drums.
Whilst Peterson is sublime when featured on Gershwin’s ‘How Long Has This Been Going On’, it’s really the subtler aspects of his playing that are the most impressive.
Peterson’s sophistication and extraordinary capacity to listen to his fellow bandmates are strong reasons to add this must-have disc to your collection.
My Favourite Instrument (Exclusively for My Friends, Vol. 4)
Oscar Peterson’s first full recording of unaccompanied solo piano, this selection from his vast discography released in 1968 is well worth tracking down.
Performing without the constraints of other musicians, Peterson playfully stretches out on a set of well-worn jazz standards, conjuring moments of virtuosic magic throughout.
Forming part of a series of six LP’s performed to a small invited audience at the home of MPS record label producer Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, this is a fantastic example of Peterson’s solo piano playing, and demonstrates his seemingly endless creativity.
The Oscar Peterson Trio at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival
Many fans of Oscar Peterson believe this 1956 live recording, taken in Stratford, Ontario, Canada to be amongst the finest examples of his famous trio comprising Herb Ellis and Ray Brown.
At the time, the trio was considered one of the slickest outfits in jazz, and it’s plain to hear why on this 11 track CD, as they demonstrate their telepathic communication with each other and dazzle the listener with their intricate arrangements.
As is often the case, Peterson’s light shines the brightest, check out his shimmering ballad playing on the not-often-heard ‘Flamingo’.
Two of the Few
Two of the Few occupies a unique position on this list, being the only duo record that we have chosen to highlight.
Featuring vibraphonist Milt Jackson alongside Peterson, sparks fly as the pair blitz their way through a set of standards including the sublime ‘Oh, Lady Be Good’ and ‘Just You, Just Me’.
The two jazz musicians communicate beautifully throughout, and share a tender moment on ‘More Than You Know’.
Whilst not the first time these had recorded together (they had already made four albums by this stage) it is was their debut as a duo, and is a joyful celebration of two masters that is well worth seeking out.
The Complete Songbooks, 1951–1955
We’ve bent the rules slightly here, and have chosen to include a compilation.
Between 1952-1955, under the supervision of Norman Granz, Peterson embarked on a truly monumental task, recording ten albums over a three-year period, each focusing on a different master of The Great American Songbook: Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Vincent Youman, Harry Warren, Harold Arlen and Jimmy McHugh.
Whilst the whole idea was devised as a marketing ploy (one that worked so well, that Granz had Peterson repeat the concept 7 years later with a different series of songbook albums), the playing is exceptional, and this collection offers a vast set of recordings of Peterson with perhaps his most important trio comprising Herb Ellis and Ray Brown.
No list of Peterson’s top 10 albums would be complete without the inclusion of Night Train.
Recorded in 1962 under the supervision of producer Norman Granz, and featuring Ray Brown (double bass) and Ed Thigpen (drums), many view this seminal release to be one of definitive recorded examples of the piano trio format.
It remains to this day Peterson’s most popular album, and showcases the trio playing 11 relatively short tracks – perhaps a deliberate attempt by Granz and Peterson to have them selected for play on commercial radio.
As expected, the band swings effortlessly throughout and Peterson dazzles with moments of intense virtuosic flair.
Possessing a wide dynamic range, and packed full of tight snappy arrangements, it’s little surprise that this much-loved disc has been picked up by so many who may not have previously thought themselves jazz fans, and is an essential addition to any record collection.
We Get Requests
Released in 1964 on Verve, this is another of the most famous and popular albums in the Oscar Peterson discography.
We Get Requests features arguably the most famous iteration of the Oscar Peterson Trio, with Ray Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums.
As the title suggests, it features some of the most well-known (and oft-requested!) jazz standards of all time, including “The Days of Wine and Roses,” “Have You Met Miss Jones?”, “The Girl from Ipanema” and “My One & Only Love.”
Aside from being a highly swinging and classy recording, it’s also a great opportunity for jazz musicians to hear how the greats operated on tunes that they must have already performed 1000 times each. The fact that they still manage to create fresh improvisations on these tunes only goes to show the skill and talent of these players.
The Very Tall Band: Live at the Blue Note
Recorded in 1998, five years after suffering a devastating stroke that weakened his left side and left him out of piano playing action for two years, The Very Tall Band: Live at the Blue Note sees Peterson in fine company; he;s joined by long-term friends and collaborators Ray Brown (double bass) and Milt Jackson (vibraphone) as well as drummer Karriem Riggins.
The love that the audience clearly has for these three masters rubs off on the band, as they kick into gear right from the word go and treat us all to a varied set of tasteful and swinging jazz.
Peterson shines brightly on his ballad feature ‘When Summer Comes’, and whilst he would go on to record for another few years before passing away in 2007, this stands out as a late career highlight for the pianist.
Thanks for joining us for this trip!
You can find out more about the great Oscar Peterson over on his website or dive into his epic discography wherever you listen to jazz.
The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!