Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

At the height of his powers, Peterson was the greatest of the truly mainstream pianists. His style, formed in the 1940s and 1950s, has not moved with the times, but captures the enduring tradition that underpins what has happened since.

No discussion of Peterson's playing lasts long without his awesome technique being mentioned. From early on he taught himself, for instance, to use his left hand as though it were his right, thereby increasing his speed and ability to produce long double-handed phrases.

In the 1950s he was restrained in showing off his power. But by the 1970s, at times he seemed to be trying to set records for the number of notes per minute that could be coaxed from a piano. Some consider this vulgar, but I'm with the US critic Scott Yanow, who wrote: "Peterson plays 100 notes when other pianists might use ten. But all 100 usually fit, and there's nothing wrong with technique when it serves the music."

Peterson's impeccable swing and deep feeling for the blues also contribute to his style. He has been well-served by his sidemen in bringing these to the fore - the perfection that is 1963's "Night Train", for instance, could not have been produced without the rock-solid Ray Brown on bass and the crisp drumming of Ed Thigpen - but it's Peterson who sets the tone, and who has always taken seriously the arranging of even the simplest tunes. I can think of no other pianist who could take a small gem like "I Love Paris" and turn it into so gleaming and nuanced a stone.

Born in Montreal, Peterson was encouraged to learn the piano and the trumpet by his family - his father would "take lumps" out of the young Oscar if he didn't practise properly. Childhood TB meant Peterson had to give up the trumpet, but by the age of 15 he already had his own weekly slot on Canadian radio. Before long Peterson was travelling the US with luminaries such as Lester Young, Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins.

OP can look a little staid, but he is also a practical joker. On one occasion he loosened the top string on Ray Brown's bass so that when he played it produced buzzing thwacks instead of notes. Now 79, Peterson is probably beyond such horseplay. But for all the joy he's brought to jazz fans he is a worthy winner of this award. Too bad that his partners are dying off, and that Brown and Pedersen can't be here to swell the applause.