CD REVIEW: Oscar Peterson - Exclusively for my Friends - (8-CD Set)

Oscar Peterson - Exclusively for my Friends, including Lost Tapes I+II 
 (MPS 0210325MSW. 8-CD Box Set. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

"Oscar told me," wrote Gene Lees in his 1988 biography of Oscar Peterson, "that these German recordings were the best he had ever made."

In the background is an improbable story. Oscar Peterson (b 1925) and Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer (b 1927), heir to the SABA electronics conglomerate, got to know each other in the early 1960s through the agency of a US-based business/export consultant with the unlikely name of Baldhard G. Falk, and the pianist and the millionaire struck up a friendship. Brunner-Schwer spoke hardly any English, Peterson didn't know German, but a series of invitations to the Brunner-Schwer villa in Villingen in the Black Forest passed off successfully, and it was the warm welcome he had there which led to recordings. They were made in front of an audience of 15-20. Brunner-Schwer would place Neumann microphones close up inside the piano, and disappear to his booth in an upstairs room. The recordings cover the period 1965-1972. These short stays in Southern Germany were essentially days off, breathing spaces for Peterson and his trios with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen, and later with Sam Jones and Bobby Durham or Louis Hayes, who constituted some of the busiest working bands in history. Peterson's energy and exuberant pianism at that time are wonders to behold.

With most of the Peterson recorded output, Norman Granz was both his manager and his record producer. The mood tended to be "up", tracks were restricted to around four minutes. In these German recordings the pianist has a bigger canvas to work on, and the feelings that he is composing, building and shaping his performances, orchestrating at the piano are very strong indeed.

These recordings trace some familiar ground. The solo piano album My Favourite Instrument is acknowledged as a classic. I found myself fascinated by the offerings on the two "Lost Tapes" volumes. Squeakys Blues, a Peterson tune dedicated to Roy Eldridge, is extraordinary. Peterson sets the tempo at ♩ = 360 which means that there is a new blues chorus coming around every eight seconds. The miracle here is Ed Thigpen's drumming, capturing every 2 and 4 with both metronomic accuracy and bouncing energy. At a more measured pace is the Neal Hefti classic Li'l Darlin', where Peterson has a sustained tremolando fill texture which builds in volume like a full orchestra. Then there are some guest appearances. The ever-affable Milt Jackson starts his solo on All of Me with Peterson interjecting, duelling and provoking, but the pianist then withdraws and allows the vibraphonist the space he needs.

The 8 CDs, the strong box and the 60 page booklet that go with them are made with care. The booklet contains all the original single-album sleevenotes, and an update from Brunner-Schwer's heirs - their father died in his home town when hit by a car. 

There are many highlights, it is a set to dip back into again and again. There are some oversights in detail: on Lost Tapes 2 for example, The Folks who Live on the Hill segues into a major-ish version of Body and Soul on a single track, followed by another unlisted track. In the context of the set, it feels like receiving another present.

This is a substantial, lovingly produced reissue. It doesn't fit through a letterbox, but I can imagine Santa bringing it down a few jazz fans' chimneys this Christmas, and being appreciated all the more for it.

LINK: Celebrating Oscar Peterson at 90 (Telegraph)

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