Oscar Peterson’s influence is so complete on the generations of pianists who have followed him onto the Canadian jazz scene that it is virtually impossible for them to play without consciously, or unconsciously, exhibiting his influence.
“Everything I play is a tribute to Oscar Peterson,” Don Thompson said last night. He was expressing what every other member of the sold-out concert in honour of Mississauga’s most famous citizen was probably thinking, about all of the players.
“I can’t remember ever playing when Oscar wasn’t around,” said Thompson, a master of the bass, vibes and drums as well as a superb pianist. “Oscar Peterson is the level we have to strive for in everything we do,” Thompson told the audience at the latest Jazz.FM91 Sound of Jazz Concert series at the Toronto Harbourfront Centre.
Bill King, a once-upon-a-time former student at Peterson’s Advanced School of Contemporary Music in the 1960s, organized last night’s event along the lines of a 1995 Peterson tribute CD he also produced called From the Heart.
That CD gathered some of the country’s best to honour the master. Thompson played his Thank You Oscar from that recording, Bernie Senensky played OP On My Mind, Dave Restivo played both the old tribute and a brand new one, called Prelude and Blues for Oscar.
It turned out to be a wonderful evening, because it was a wonderful idea executed by tremendous musicians.
Restivo played an emotional version of Hymn To Freedom that seemed to reverberate with the echoes of the booming voice of Martin Luther King, whose work in civil rights inspired the tune.
When he was 14, Restivo’s father took him to see Peterson, then at the height of his powers in the 1980s, playing solo piano at the Troy Music Hall in upstate New York. That performance and the iconic recording of Night Train, whose blues-drenched core was an inspiration to Diana Krall among many other players, set Restivo on the jazz path.
Among numerous highlights last night was a gutsy version of Love For Sale by Mississauga’s own Nancy Walker. Inspired by OP’s version on his Cole Porter songbook album, it was bluesy and bouncy and bold in the best Peterson tradition.
The player who seemed to embody Peterson best was the newest on the scene, Robi Botos, the Hungarian-born, newly-minted Canadian citizen who won the Montreux Jazz Festival first prize for solo piano in 2004.
Hunkered over the keys looking like you-know-who, Botos attacked Billie’s Bounce and a couple of others of Oscar’s favourite tunes in that familiar take-no-prisoners style that embodied the evening’s missing protagonist.
Just like Oscar at his cutting, reckless best, Botos had the rhythm section of Steve Wallace on bass and Daniel Barnes on drums looking fearful of where the next turn in the road might lead.
“This was a long night of magic,” said co-producer King, “a night when great musicians threw themselves into the music and gave all they had.”