Kelly Peterson, widow of the towering piano virtuoso Oscar Peterson, never imagined she would become a record producer.
But for years after her husband’s death, in 2007 at age 82, she had been trying to think of ways to honor his legacy and share his compositions with the world. Everyone knew he ranked alongside Art Tatum as one of the supreme deities of the instrument, but his seemingly superhuman technique often overshadowed other aspects of his work — especially his composing.
So when a piano technician came to the Peterson home in the Toronto area a few years ago to tune her husband’s Bösendorfer Imperial grand — with its 97 keys — lightning struck.
The technician “said the piano is in remarkably good shape, but it needs to be played,” recalls Kelly Peterson. “So that’s when I got the idea: We would do a recording of Oscar’s music on Oscar’s piano. In my naivete, I thought this would be the easiest recording in the world to make: solo piano and in my home. I don’t even have to go to a studio.”
Three years later, to mark the master’s 90th birthday (in August), she’s about to release (on Dec. 11) “Oscar, With Love,” an extraordinarily beautiful, three-CD set for which several of the world’s greatest jazz pianists have recorded her husband’s music on his Bösendorfer, in his home studio. The honor roll includes veterans such as Ramsey Lewis, Michel Legrand, Chick Corea, Monty Alexander and Kenny Barron as well as exceptional younger artists such as Gerald Clayton, Benny Green and Justin Kauflin (the latter best known for his starring role in the 2014 documentary film on Clark Terry, “Keep on Keepin’ On”).
Not that it was easy to round up all of these artists — most of whom tour the world relentlessly — and get them to the Petersons’ home during select time slots. The process became a maze of scheduling, recording and producing.
“Had I expected all of this, I probably wouldn’t have started,” quips Kelly Peterson, speaking at the Royal Conservatory of Music in downtown Toronto. That’s where an Oscar @ 90 concert will take place Dec. 11, in the conservatory’s Koerner Hall, featuring several pianists from the recording.
Peterson said a record label embraced the idea, encouraging her to set to work on the project. Not surprisingly, the pianists she contacted were eager to sign on, so she began lining up dates for engineers and artists to converge on the family home during a 10-day period in October 2014.
However, the deal the record label finally proposed was “far below budget,” she says, leaving her at a crossroads: Give up or forge ahead.
“So I said, ‘Well, just do it,’” she remembers. “It’s important, everybody is available. The serendipity of that was not lost on me: I’m supposed to do this.”
Moreover, without the encumbrance of record-label restrictions, she could fashion the project in any way she wished and, better still, expand the roster of pianists. So the project snowballed, “Oscar, With Love” ultimately featuring 36 tracks, most composed by Oscar Peterson, several never recorded before and a few penned in homage to him by Corea, Alexander, Makoto Ozone, Oliver Jones and others.
One can only imagine how intimidating it must have been for any pianist, even those as accomplished as the ones Kelly Peterson convened, to sit at the great man’s piano, surrounded by portraits of Duke Ellington, Tatum and Peterson himself.
“I walked into his house — and this is Oscar Peterson’s house,” recalls Lewis, the Chicago pianist who, like many other musicians, long revered Peterson.
“He’s one of my main influences. So we went downstairs, and she says: ‘Well, here’s his piano.’ And it was almost like: ‘Do I touch it? Or should I touch it?’
“So I kind of had to walk around and digest this at first. Finally, I sat down at the piano, and I kind of just sat there for a few minutes before I touched it.”
Unfortunately for Lewis, the Peterson compositions he’d planned to play had already been recorded by other pianists involved in the project. So Kelly Peterson looked around the house in search of other works, and Lewis picked Peterson’s “If I Love Again” (never recorded).
The song proved so melodically strong and beautifully constructed that, in an earlier era, it might easily have become a jazz standard. That’s still a possibility, considering the mercurial beauty of Lewis’ version. By turns rhapsodic and contemplative, florid and spare, Lewis’ account conveys a degree of spontaneity that perhaps would have been possible only under these unpredictable conditions.
“So now I’m playing on Oscar Peterson’s piano, and now I’m playing some music of his that I’ve never heard before and never seen before, and it’s being recorded — hello!” says Lewis, still somewhat incredulous about the whole scenario.
But this recording, which easily ranks among the best of the year, overflows with such indelible tracks. Legrand’s lushly impressionistic pianism in Peterson’s “Dream of Me” (also recorded here for the first time), Green’s tenderness in Peterson’s “If You Only Knew” and Renee Rosnes’ Brahmsian ardor in “Love Ballade” express not only the gifts of the individual pianists but also the distinctive voice of the composer.
Listen to this set in its entirety and you get a sense that you’re hearing the essence of Peterson, regardless of who’s playing the piano. The poetry of his melodies and the questing nature of his harmonies reflect a decidedly introspective personality. To those who knew him, he was a warm, gentle soul (though occasionally volatile as well), generally as understated in conversation as he was leonine at the keyboard. Or, as Kelly Peterson put it, “He was a really shy person, believe it or not.”
It seems fitting too that Kelly Peterson made Chicago an important part of the recording, not only via Lewis’ two cuts but also through a haunting track by longtime Chicago artist and Oscar Peterson friend Audrey Morris, who sings and plays “Look What You’ve Done to Me.”
“Chicago is piano city, more so, in a lot of ways, than New York,” Oscar Peterson 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” of London House, where Peterson performed prolifically.
“The most important one of all to me was Audrey Morris. 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.”
Bringing so many themes, compositions and pianists together for “Oscar, With Love” has consumed Kelly Peterson, who said she sometimes “would wake up in a cold sweat, filled with anxiety about what I was doing.” But then “I would often get an incredible sense of calm and hear his voice saying, ‘This is great, you’ve got this. And you’re doing a good job, and I’m proud.’”
In further celebration of Oscar Peterson’s 90th and the album’s release, 12 Bösendorfer Oscar Peterson Signature Edition Pianos will be going on sale, equipped with Yamaha Disklavier E3 technology that will reproduce Peterson’s recordings of 13 compositions.
The entire venture, of course, has been an emotional one for Kelly Peterson, who began living with the pianist in 1986 and married him in 1990.
“I was with Oscar when he wrote most of those songs — a lot of the new songs, anyway,” she says. “So sitting in the studio listening to everyone play his songs, I would often have tears. … It conjured up so many memories. It brought back so many moments of being with Oscar when he wrote this music.
“It brought me great joy to know that his music is being recorded.”
Others are likely to feel the same.
“Oscar, With Love” is available for pre-order in deluxe and standard versions at oscarwithlove.com.
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