June 12, 2010

Oscar and Frank

Lately, I’ve been listening to Oscar Peterson’s album A Jazz Portrait of Frank Sinatra, recorded in Paris in May 1959. This was one of the first albums Peterson recorded with his new trio partner, drummer Ed Thigpen, who replaced guitarist Herb Ellis; bassist Ray Brown remained. As a fellow Frank Sinatra fan - particularly of his classic Capitol Records LPs of this period (Sinatra had just released Come Dance with Me! in January 1959) - I understand Peterson’s stated reasons for the album:
For years I have been an ardent admirer of Frank Sinatra. I've been thrilled by his singing and I've respected the taste that goes with his singing. As a musician I've further admired his choice of tunes and as a fan I've recognized that certain tunes are forever, at least in my mind, inextricably linked with Sinatra, both by usage and interpretation and by that special magic that is his alone. This album is not only a tribute to Frank Sinatra, but also my emotional interpretation of the feelings I get when I hear him. I have tried, therefore, to paint as well as I can a portrait, told in my personal jazz terms, of Frank Sinatra.
     Peterson’s playing on this album has been unduly criticized for sticking so close to the melodies, but clearly this was his intention. He was about to embark on an ambitious re-recording of his songbook albums (Ellington, Gershwin, Rodgers, Kern, Porter, Berlin, Arlen) with the new trio configuration, and the same critique could be leveled at these as well. (In fact, you could make this same accusation of Sinatra's singing.)
     But I think this is a willful misreading of the project’s intentions as well as of Peterson as a performer. Praise for Peterson’s technical prowess has often been paired with complaints about his lack of adventurousness. Perhaps it is true that he was more of a crystallizer than an innovator in his approach. But the breathtaking technique and melodic brilliance on display on this and many other albums speak for themselves.
A Jazz Portrait of Frank Sinatra     Jazz Portrait opens with a loping version of “You Make Me Feel So Young” and a quick-paced “Come Dance With Me.” The tempos for the most part are not Sinatra’s but Peterson’s, although one can almost hear Frank singing along on “Witchcraft” and “I Get a Kick Out of You.” My personal favorites on the album are “All of Me” and an appropriately bluesy “Birth of the Blues.” I highly recommend this album to Sinatra fans and Peterson fans alike.

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