Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

A new release from an artist of the stature of Oscar Peterson should be as welcome an event as a jazz festival with no world music, or a Wayne Shorter concert in which the great saxophonist actually plays a tune.

A new release from an artist of the stature of Oscar Peterson should be as welcome an event as a jazz festival with no world music, or a Wayne Shorter concert in which the great saxophonist actually plays a tune. An unalloyed pleasure, in other words, a sure-fire hit among the piles of CDs bearing the phizogs of gloomy Swedes and noodling Norwegians. Unfortunately, A Night in Vienna shows OP in seriously weakened form, and makes one wonder just who is served by further recordings of the 79-year-old pianist.

That Peterson is one of the greatest masters of his instrument in jazz is not in doubt. But although he recovered from a stroke in 1993, it cost him the use of his left hand for some time and his technique has never been quite the same. His playing on the new album is ragged where it was once a byword for precision. He used to build phrases into arcs spanning chorus after chorus, like some musical rainbow, but now, such an effort is beyond him.

At the Blue Note in New York, 18 months ago, I witnessed the painful spectacle of this formerly ebullient prizefighter attempt an idea at the keyboard and then stumble halfway through, trying to conceal his fall by substituting one of his familiar riffs. OP's record company compares him to Muhammad Ali, and the similarity is there, but not, sadly, in the sense that they suggest. What they share is that they are both men so reduced by illness that their public appearances elicit sympathy from those who know what they once were, and bewilderment from those who don't. The friend that I'd brought with me (and for whose ticket I'd paid $75 for a one-hour set) couldn't understand what all the fuss over Peterson was about. How could he have done? It was like seeing the Oscar Peterson Quartet without Oscar himself.

So, does there come a time when the jazzman should retire? There are certainly plenty of examples of musicians whose prime is long past and whose performances have become, frankly, embarrassing. They are sustained by the legend of their youthful achievements and rightly lauded for the trails they have blazed. But could anyone really say that the sound that Dizzy Gillespie produced towards the end of his life was good? He still looked the part, but the mangled notes emanating from his trumpet would have been ridiculed if formed by any other player.

Just weeks before he died in 1987, Woody Herman was still recording with his big band. The resulting album, Woody's Gold Star, is marred only by the occasions when the 74-year-old Herman takes his solos. Unkind to say, perhaps, but at the end, Woody made the soprano sax sound like a drowning cat.

Spare us these ill-conceived recordings. Let us remember these greats as they were in their roaring years. It is no kindness to send shuffling old men on to the stage.

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