Howard Reich: "Ramsey Lewis, Benny Green and others will celebrate 'Oscar, With Love'" Posted on 05 Apr 04:52

It's difficult to overstate Oscar Peterson's importance as a jazz pianist, the wizardry of his technique matched by the exuberance of his approach to swing rhythm and the beauty of his keyboard touch.

But all that instrumental prowess overshadowed another facet of Peterson's art: the poetry of his original compositions.

That large — and still not fully charted — body of work received a major boost at the end of 2015, when Kelly Peterson, the virtuoso's widow, released the three-CD set "Oscar, With Love."

One of the best recordings of that year, "Oscar, With Love" was no mere compilation of tunes by Peterson, who died in 2007 at age 82. Instead, Kelly Peterson brought several of the world's foremost jazz pianists to the Peterson home in Canada to record the master's compositions on his beloved Bosendorfer Imperial grand.

Several of those pianists convened at Koerner Hall in Toronto on Dec. 11, 2015, for an "Oscar @ 90" concert, and several more will converge on Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center on Friday evening, the first such performance since the launch.

"Oscar loved Chicago," says Peterson, explaining why she decided Chicago would be first to hear this music live.

"Oscar spent so much time performing there (in) the earlier years, when he played the London House, but then the years when he played at Ravinia. And I remember those years well, and the times being there with him, and how wonderful it was. And playing at Orchestra Hall, too."

Indeed, Peterson's ties to Chicago ran deep, which was no accident, for Peterson revered the city's long jazz history and deep pool of talent.

"Chicago is piano city, more so, in a lot of ways, than New York," the great pianist told me in 1990. "With people like Larry Novak, Ramsey (Lewis) and Audrey Morris, you've got the best people in the business right there. In fact, when we played Chicago in the '50s, I could almost tell you before any set who was going to be sitting where in the front row" at London House.

"The most important one of all, to me, was Audrey Morris," he added. "She was a big influence on me. Tune-wise, she's a walking musical encyclopedia, the Sylvia Syms of Chicago. … She'd say to me, 'You know, O.P., I think you've got the bridge to that tune wrong,' and sure enough, she'd be right. I'd never get to catch her wrong."

The allure of "Oscar, With Love" is that it shows what skilled pianists can do with songs as elegantly constructed as Peterson's. The lush pianism that Michel Legrand brought to Peterson's "Dream of Me," the delicacy of Benny Green's response to Peterson's "If You Only Knew" and the intensity of expression Renee Rosnes conjured in "Love Ballade" attested to the range of musical possibilities this work engenders.

Yet, as a whole, Peterson's originals convey a degree of understatement and contemplation that many listeners might not associate with a pianist as leonine as he.

What does Kelly Peterson hear when she listens to this music?

"I truly am transported back into the studio, with Oscar sitting at his synthesizer composing, or calling me into the room and saying: 'Come here, listen to this,'" she recalls.

"I hear the original. What I think the music tells us is: We can hear the depth of his emotion, that he could express so much musically, and I also think that we can hear the changes that happen throughout his life as he got older, and his music becomes more thoughtful or introspective.

"The earlier pieces, there's perhaps a different kind of fire in them. And I think it also shows his constant curiosity, because he's always looking for new ways to express himself musically, and new harmonies to provide. And his sheer joy at life and at music."

Kelly Peterson next will be taking "Oscar, With Love" to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in July and, one hopes, elsewhere throughout the jazz world. She's also working on the vinyl edition of the set and hopes to release a recording of music Oscar Peterson recorded on synthesizer.

And though Peterson devotees are already familiar with his "Nigerian Marketplace" and "Peace for South Africa," Kelly Peterson envisions a recording of the complete suite that yielded those movements, "Africa."

There's a great deal of Peterson's oeuvre, in other words, that the world has yet to hear. Meaning that even a jazz icon as celebrated as Peterson still has something new to say to us.

As for this second performance of "Oscar, With Love," the cast will feature pianists Kenny Barron, Robi Botos, Bill Charlap, Benny Green, Ramsey Lewis and Renee Rosnes, with Dave Young on bass and Celine Peterson (Oscar and Kelly Peterson's daughter) as narrator.

"I'm going to have a box of tissues," says Kelly Peterson. "I know that we will all feel his spirit."

And hear it.

Howard Reich is a Chicago Tribune critic.

hreich@chicagotribune.com