January 02, 2008

Come Fly With Me

The death of Oscar Peterson on Christmas Eve caused a brief spike in what I think to be one of the most fascinating tropes in music reception: the reflexive mistrust of virtuosity. Peterson, was, of course, one of the greatest virtuosos of the past hundred years. A lot of the coverage of his passing, even that in a favorable tone, still cast a qualified eye towards all that technique.
Though Peterson has sometimes been criticised as a musician in thrall to his own runaway technique, he remained a great virtuoso of piano jazz, and an equally effective populariser of the music among those who might otherwise not have encountered it.

—John Fordham in The Guardian

Accolades followed him everywhere, but Peterson always had to fend off some critics who believed his technical prowess outweighed his ability to express emotion on the keyboard.

—Jeffrey Jones for Reuters

The critical ambivalence was typified in 1973 by a review of a Peterson performance by John S. Wilson of The Times. Mr. Wilson wrote: “For the last 20 years, Oscar Peterson has been one of the most dazzling exponents of the flying fingers school of piano playing. His performances have tended to be beautifully executed displays of technique but woefully weak on emotional projection.”

The complaints evoked those heard in the 1940s about the great concert violinist Jascha Heifetz, who was occasionally accused of being so technically brilliant that one could not find his or the composer’s heart and soul in the music he played.

—Richard Severo in The New York Times

I wasn't going to bother with my own obituary of Peterson, since I figured it would simply be a lot of fanboy gushing: Peterson was the first jazz pianist I ever heard (via record albums appropriated from my dad—thanks, Dad), he pretty quickly became my favorite, and he never really relinquished the crown, although I fully admit I never had the time to keep up with his fearsomely prodigious output of recordings. If I'm going to talk about his virtuosity, though, it might be helpful to briefly analyze just what it was that set Peterson's playing apart. Lots of pianists play fast; some of them play extremely fast. But Peterson played extremely fast and swung very hard, which is kind of a violation of piano physics. It's relatively easy for fast passagework to either float above the beat or get you from a particular beat A to beat B. (This is why I've always thought the phrases in bebop tunes are always beginning and ending on odd parts of the bar—it delineates the outline of the swing without necessarily having to swing itself. It's very cool in an op-art sort of way.) Peterson could judiciously vary the touch, tone, and weight of every one of those many notes so that the swing was embedded within the passagework. It was simultaneously solo and rhythm section. Pianists know how amazing this is; it's the same as practicing a Scarlatti sonata for hours on end, trying to even out the sixteenth notes, then hearing Horowitz do it with such preternatural smoothness that you just throw up your hands. I never met another pianist who didn't regard Peterson with awe. We'd tried it. We knew how hard he had worked to be able to do what he did.

In other words, I never thought that Peterson was letting his technique go on autopilot; rather, he was always putting his technique at the service of the rhythm. A lot of the critical ambivalence towards Peterson may have also had to do with another 20th-century trope, the idea that harmonic innovation is more important than rhythmic innovation. (I sometimes think that, a hundred years from now, the real importance of atonality will not be its supposed emancipation of dissonance, but that its abandonment of specifically harmonic tension and resolution enabled explosive growth in the field of rhythmic possibility.) Peterson's allegiance to blues-based harmonies was simply a result of his creativity being more fully engaged in sculpting the rhythmic flow. Peterson's rhythm is often compared to Count Basie's, that hard, rock-solid swing, but Peterson's technique let him keep that swing in more fluid, moment-to-moment play. It's telling that, when I went from Peterson to Thelonious Monk, it didn't seem all that big a jump to me. To my ear, Monk was using silence and accents the way Peterson used streams of notes and flourishes.

The difference, though, was that the basic building blocks of Monk's vocabulary were the basic building blocks of sound: hard attack, soft attack, loud sound, soft sound, no sound. For Peterson, one of the main components of his vocabulary was his virtuosity, in the same way as a Chopin or a Liszt: technical difficulty, and the overcoming of technical difficulty, as an expressive resource in and of itself. Nowadays, whether out of a need for some sense of "authenticity," or some inability to connect the craft with the art, or maybe even simply the lack of widespread instrumental musical experience as a frame of reference, Monk's style (which, it should be pointed out, was just as much constructed and polished and practiced as Peterson's) is held up as more "emotional", "soulful", "communicative"—insert your own word. I like Monk and Peterson, in large part because I don't regard virtuosity as a sort of second-class musical element. But a lot of people do.

So why this distrust of virtuosity, this assumption that somehow, if your technique is astonishingly good, your emotional connection with the music must necessarily suffer? I think it has to do with the similarity between music and magic. (I've talked about this before; it's one of my favorite pet ideas.) And, by extension, the connection between magic and outright chicanery. Magic is, after all, a benign con; at a certain point, the patter becomes so smooth and faultless that we instinctively start to protect our valuables. With virtuosity, too—it's that omnipresent fear of looking like a rube or a fool. So instead of the natural reaction, which is to just let one's jaw drop all the way to the floor, we try and assert some control over the situation, establish some parameter where we can at least seem to be engaging the experience on equal terms with the performer. And a big part of that is dismissing what the performer does that we can't as impressive but somehow irrelevant to what really matters. (Professional athletes get this a lot. Yeah, but he's still just throwing a ball.)

In Peterson's case, this was exacerbated by the fact that the emotional content of much of his music-making was built around one of the most basic but uncomplicated emotions there is: joy. I don't think it was a case of cynicism resisting that joy, just that it was so obvious that perhaps a critical exploration of it didn't seem necessary, or didn't seem to go beneath the surface. But that joy was powerful stuff, indeed. Every day, Oscar Peterson, a high-school dropout from suburban Toronto, the son of black immigrants, sat behind the piano and did things that nobody else on the planet could do. If you don't think that there's a deeply profound statement about the human condition right there, you're just not paying attention.

5 comments:

rootlesscosmo said...

The difference, though, was that the basic building blocks of Monk's vocabulary were the basic building blocks of sound: hard attack, soft attack, loud sound, soft sound, no sound. For Peterson, one of the main components of his vocabulary was his virtuosity, in the same way as a Chopin or a Liszt: technical difficulty, and the overcoming of technical difficulty, as an expressive resource in and of itself. Nowadays, whether out of a need for some sense of "authenticity," or some inability to connect the craft with the art, or maybe even simply the lack of widespread instrumental musical experience as a frame of reference, Monk's style (which, it should be pointed out, was just as much constructed and polished and practiced as Peterson's) is held up as more "emotional", "soulful", "communicative"—insert your own word. I like Monk and Peterson, in large part because I don't regard virtuosity as a sort of second-class musical element. But a lot of people do.

As long ago as 1959, my bebopper friends and I disparaged Oscar Peterson, but I'm not sure you've exactly captured our reasons. We admired the virtuosity of Bud Powell and Art Tatum; in Powell's case, we generally believed that his recorded performances were in part truly spontaneous, while with Tatum we knew that (except for a few live performance tracks) we weren't really hearing improvisation at all, though none of us would have concluded that Tatum wasn't a jazz player for this reason; his technical brilliance was, as you say, an expressive resource, and that didn't conflict with our standards of value.

Rather, what we felt about Peterson was that he wasn't "saying anything"--that he was using virtuosity, and swing (which we didn't deny he had) to create the illusion of an emotional involvement that he didn't really feel. In language terms, we thought of Powell and Tatum as fluent, Peterson as glib, and that, to our way of thinking, was a crucial difference, and one that told against Peterson.

Of course all these judgments are subjective, even "ideological;" I'm just trying to give an account of how some jazz players and listeners viewed Peterson. It's probably true that joy wasn't high on our list of Important Emotions, but it wasn't absent--we loved Charlie Parker with strings and got a kick out of Dizzy Gillespie's musical and extra-musical goofing ("and now we'd like to play Duke Ellington's immoral 'Caravan...'") But Peterson struck us as phony clear through, all razzle-dazzle and nothing behind it--not Horowitz's rippling Scarlatti, but his arrangement of "The Stars and Stripes Forever."

Matthew said...

Rootless Cosmo: Your summation of the critical reaction is better than mine—thanks. I think you pinpoint the difference between us when you say:

Rather, what we felt about Peterson was that he wasn't "saying anything"--that he was using virtuosity, and swing (which we didn't deny he had) to create the illusion of an emotional involvement that he didn't really feel.

My own opinion is that all music creates the illusion of emotional involvement. I'm not cynically saying that music is emotionless; all music is born out of emotion, and, in fact, I think the stylization of emotion is what gives music such emotional power. But it is an illusion, shaped with artistry and technique—and I found the commentary around Peterson to be a good opportunity to try and figure why some techniques for creating that illusion are more valued—or, perhaps, less noticeable—than others.

The one thing I didn't really get into was the idea that in Peterson's music, there was no sense of him pushing up against limits, of trying to break new ground. I think that's a fair assessment, although for my own part, the rest made up for it, and I still think he was doing more rhythmically than people have given him credit for. But the idea that limitless possibility can be crippling to an artist—that not having anything to push against gives you nothing to hang on to—is an old one in music. In my days hanging out with piano students, the classic cautionary tale was Josef Hoffmann, who could seemingly do anything from an incredibly early age, and who descended into alcoholism. Peterson was a far healthier human being, of course, but I think that the whole narrative of extreme virtuosity as a Faustian bargain vis-à-vis the soul is a pretty indelible trope in all kinds of music. Paganini's PR worked better than he ever could have imagined.

rootlesscosmo said...

The one thing I didn't really get into was the idea that in Peterson's music, there was no sense of him pushing up against limits, of trying to break new ground. I think that's a fair assessment, although for my own part, the rest made up for it, and I still think he was doing more rhythmically than people have given him credit for.

You're almost certainly right on that last point; we were an ungenerous lot, I'm sorry to say. As for pushing the limits, yes, I think that was at a premium, though again it wasn't inconsistent with fluency--Clifford Brown and Stan Getz had astonishing technical control of their instruments, but we believed they put their technique at the service of expression, as (in our view) Peterson didn't.

Henry Holland said...

I came to Oscar Peterson via Keith Emerson of ELP. Emerson was a Peterson fanatic and he was dogged by the same bullshit in ELP's heyday: "Great technique, no feel at all". Total rubbish.

On the ELP From the Beginning DVD is a great clip of Emerson on Oscar Peterson's BBC television show (!!!) doing Honky Tonk Train Blues in 1976.

Keith leads a piano/bass/drums/horns combo, while Mr. Peterson is on the other side of the stage with a bass player and drummer. Keith plays all of the head/unison parts of the tune and he cues in the Peterson trio for 3 12-bar sections. Peterson must have weighed 400 pounds and his bright red suit sears my corneas every time I watch the clip, but he's fabulous in those little bits.

I believe Keith Emerson said it was one of the highlights of his career and why not? Getting to play with your idol must be a real buzz.

jim said...

Dr. Jazz,
It's clear that most of you just don't get it. When Oscar was on the
TV show of Andre Previn, they talked about Tatum.
The "great" Charlie Parker took a
job washing dishes in a restaurant
just to listen to Tatum nightly.
In the words of Charles Mingus:
"People think Bird was important,
Tatum was IMPORTANT"!!!