LP Review: Oscar Peterson & Nelson Riddle

Oscar Peterson & Nelson Riddle
(Speakers Corner/Verve V6-8562. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)

Nelson Riddle had sturdy jazz credentials, starting with his stint as a trombonist for Tommy Dorsey and writing for Elliot Lawrence and Bob Crosby, but he is unquestionably best known as an arranger of popular singers, famed for his recordings with Frank Sinatra. These two strands of his career come together most emphatically in this neglected album. It’s a remarkable piece of work because Riddle’s approach is to treat Oscar Peterson exactly like a singer — like Sinatra, in fact. He supports and surrounds the soloist with beautifully written arrangements, deploying ten celli, five horns and five flutes as a cushion for the piano. “These combinations were very effective,” wrote Riddle modestly in his autobiography.

Oscar Peterson & Nelson Riddle is a significant album and one of the most underrated in Nelson Riddle’s — or Oscar Peterson’s — catalogue. Peterson recorded literally hundreds of albums, but only two that I know of feature him in an orchestral context (the other is Motions & Emotions on the MPS label, with Claus Ogerman arrangements). Oscar Peterson’s biographer Gene Lees is dismissive of the collaboration with Riddle, describing it as “somewhat abortive and forgotten.” In this instance, I don’t think Lees could be more wrong, and I for one certainly haven’t forgotten it. For years I’ve been looking for a second hand LP in decent shape.

It’s my great good fortune that Speakers Corner in Germany, the leading European provider of audiophile vinyl, has built up an impressive list of jazz reissues, including many from the Verve label — Oscar Peterson & Nelson Riddle among them. Their usual painstaking and meticulous restoration process has gone into this release and it sounds superlative. Unbeatable, in fact.

The album dates from almost exactly half a century ago, when it was recorded in Los Angeles by Rafael Valentin. Peterson’s trio at the time consisted of Ray Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums. Tragically, but typically, the names of Riddle’s players remain unrecorded, so we don’t know who played the lovely flute solo on Portrait of Jenny or what brass ensemble provided a swaggering big band intro for A Sleeping Bee.

There is a certain Gil Evans feeling to the arrangements, particularly on the pensive Nightingale (a composition by Oscar Peterson and Gene Lees) and Kurt Weill’s My Ship. This is an impression confirmed by the Billboard reviewer of the original LP in 1963, who detected “a kind of Claude Thornhill quality.” Gil Evans, of course, was Thornhill’s arranger throughout the 1940s. As it happens, this sound was strictly intentional. Nelson Riddle caught the Peterson trio playing in Chicago in the early 1960s and discussed a possible collaboration with them. In Peter Levinson’s biography of Riddle he says, “Nelson believed that Peterson’s pianistics could be presented in a setting not too far afield from the old Claude Thornhill band.”

It’s a delicate, beautiful record, full of pastel tones with the occasional well judged moment of drama or astringency. On My Foolish Heart the piano is perfectly integrated into the arrangement with its plucked strings and elegiac flute. On My Ship Peterson plays like he’s dropping pearls in the water while Ed Thigpen’s brushes are a far-away, almost subliminal, susurration — the sound of surf half heard in the distance. The Speakers Corner vinyl really comes into its own here, delivering subtle, lovely ghosts of sound, musical nuances which might otherwise be undetectable.

The moderation and tastefulness of the strings on My Ship is a constant reminder of why Riddle was so exceptional. There’s never schmaltz or excess. The restraint of Peterson’s Basie-like piano seems infectious. The whole track has a gentle tenderness which is immensely affecting, yet at the same time it shows a total understanding of Weill’s sardonic modernism.

A Sleepin’ Bee is boisterous and boastful, with strutting horns and effortless unfurling bebop filigree from Peterson, accompanied by Ray Brown’s bass and Thigpen’s drums so closely interlinked that they are like a single heartbeat. The imposing double act of Brown and Thigpen is also strikingly evident on Portrait of Jenny. Thigpen comes to the fore with his cymbal work on Some Day My Prince Will Come. But, as with Riddle’s charts, it is difficult to unpick the tapestry and isolate or identify the individual elements, except as an exquisite setting for Peterson’s piano.

Which is as it should be — on a classic Sinatra album you just want the finest backdrop for that unforgettable voice. Peterson’s piano playing is the equal of Sinatra’s singing, and Nelson Riddle had the distinction of providing the supreme musical context for both.

What it all amounts to is one of the best, and most unusual Oscar Peterson albums. And thanks to Speakers Corner it has never sounded better.

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