Chicago Tribune: "'Oscar, With Love' celebrates Peterson's piano genius" Posted on 09 Apr 04:51

There's no shortage of concerts honoring past masters of jazz, simply because so many legends have left us in the past couple decades.

But the event that drew a large audience to Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center on Friday night stood apart from most such tributes, and not simply because of the marquee value of its performers.

For the American premiere of "Oscar, With Love" amounted to much more than just a salute to one of the most accomplished jazz musicians ever to place fingers on a keyboard. Like the landmark 2015 recording for which it was named, "Oscar, With Love" advanced and enriched our understanding of its singular subject.

To create the three-CD package, Kelly Peterson — the pianist's widow — invited formidable pianists with close ties to her husband to travel to the family's home outside Toronto. There they sat at Oscar Peterson's beloved Bosenderfor Imperial grand and recorded their interpretations of music written by the virtuoso himself.

For though Peterson, who died in 2007 at age 82, was celebrated around the world for his quicksilver piano technique and deep-swing aesthetic, the breadth of his work as composer was little-known. Imagine, then, hearing the likes of Michel Legrand, Ramsey Lewis, Kenny Barron, Renee Rosnes, Monty Alexander and others playing their responses to Peterson's compositions. In addition, a few pianists — including Chick Corea, Oliver Jones and Alexander — recorded works they'd penned as tributes to Peterson.

In December of 2015, several of the recording's pianists convened at Koerner Hall in Toronto to perform some of this music live, and for the first time since that world premiere another cast of pianists from the recording brought the venture to Orchestra Hall.

The very sight of an ebony, Bosendorfer grand sitting alone on that vast stage suggested the considerable potential of the evening, which met high expectations. For the occasion seemed to inspire some greatly skilled pianists to outdo themselves on Peterson's behalf.

Celine Peterson — Oscar and Kelly Peterson's daughter — served as the rare jazz emcee with something valuable to say, opening the night with reminiscences of her father as musician, educator, mentor and parent.

A microphone glitch prevented her from being heard from offstage introducing the second performer of the evening, Chicagoan Ramsey Lewis. So he simply appeared unannounced, promptly receiving a noisy ovation. On purely technical terms, this may have been a minor mistake. But so far as unplanned stagecraft goes, it was perfect, as if to say that Lewis needed no introduction in his hometown.

He immediately offered an exquisitely polished account of "If I Love Again," which he also performed on the recording. If Lewis' right-hand filigree and glistening keyboard runs attested to the debt both he and Peterson owed to piano colossus Art Tatum, the sensitivity of Lewis' touch and meticulousness of his keyboard attacks underscored how much Lewis learned from Peterson.

And not simply from a distance, for Lewis often played between sets when Peterson was the featured performer at Chicago's long-gone London House.

"It was like going to school every night for four hours," Lewis told the crowd.

Later in the evening, Lewis evoked the classical aspects of Peterson's art with "Laurentide Waltz" from Peterson's "Canadiana Suite," shades of Debussy and Ravel hovering over the tune's harmonies and Lewis' voicing of them.

Pianist Rosnes was the first of the evening to conjure the fiery, hard-swinging facet of Peterson's art in his "Bossa Beguine" (which Gerald Clayton played on the album). The combination of Rosnes' crystalline touch, buoyant rhythm and copiously inventive figurations — accompanied by bassist Dave Young — recalled Peterson's performance in this same room in 1997. Though playing four years after a stroke had diminished his use of his left hand, Peterson threw off lightning bolts with his right, producing more melodic strands, rhythmic energy and profusion of sound than one might have thought five fingers could achieve.

The evening's most poignant moment belonged to a surprise guest, Chicagoan Audrey Morris, who was one of Peterson's closest friends and a singer-pianist he greatly admired. At 88, Morris produced the same romantic pianism for which she long has been admired, her gentle and vulnerable vocals in "Look What You've Done to Me" (which she also performed on the recording) illuminating Peterson's high regard for her.

"Oscar Peterson," Morris told the crowd, "happens to be my idol."

The concert contained many memorable moments, among them Barron making a jazz lullaby of Peterson's "Ballad for Benny Carter"; Benny Green playing fast, fat chords with both hands in Peterson's "Cool Walk" and sounding magisterial in Peterson's "Hymn to Freedom"; Rosnes and Bill Charlap (who are married) playing four-hands piano robustly in Peterson's "Sushi"; Robi Botos digging deep into the keys in Botos' "Smedley's Attack"; and bassist Young playing his "Goodbye Old Friend," a profoundly lyrical solo tribute to Peterson, whom Young had helped lure back into performing after the pianist's stroke.

Though each of Peterson's compositions had its own message, most conveyed a degree of tenderness, gentleness and introspection that listeners might not have associated with a pianist of such towering presence.

"Oscar, With Love" provided many such insights, suggesting that Kelly Peterson — who appeared briefly on stage toward the evening's end — should take this production wherever she can. The world needs to hear it.

Howard Reich is a Chicago Tribune critic.

hreich@chicagotribune.com