Line Between Good And Bad Taste Blurs On Oscar Peterson's 'Motions & Emotions'

Jan 31, 2019
Originally published on February 1, 2019 11:16 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. A 50-year-old album by pianist Oscar Peterson and a studio orchestra has been reissued by the German label MPS. Our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, confesses to mixed feelings about this recording of 1960s pop covers.

(SOUNDBITE OF OSCAR PETERSON'S "THIS GUY'S IN LOVE WITH YOU")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Pianist Oscar Peterson on one of Burt Bacharach's less-inspired melodies, "This Guy's In Love With You." It's from Peterson's newly reissued "Motions & Emotions," from 1969. Oscar Peterson was one of the most fluent jazz pianists. And this impeccably played session was orchestrated by Claus Ogerman, jazz and pop arranger who'd recently worked up a nice album of Bacharach tunes for saxophonist Stan Getz. But Ogerman plus Peterson edges closer to tinkling piano cocktail hour.

(SOUNDBITE OF OSCAR PETERSON'S "SALLY'S TOMATO")

WHITEHEAD: That aesthetic is out of late '60s Hollywood love stories. The low, murmuring flutes and bossa nova guitars add class with a chef's kiss. Old and new liner notes attest to this album's value and good taste. I wouldn't go that far, but something fascinates me about this music. Partly it's the disparity between the big canvas and the modest ambition, orchestral forces marshaled to produce easy-listening pop covers.

(SOUNDBITE OF OSCAR PETERSON'S "YESTERDAY'S"

WHITEHEAD: In the 1960s, lots of respectable jazz musicians covered AM radio hits. But it wasn't always a good fit. In fairness, the Beatles tunes Oscar Peterson does here, "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby," had string sections even on the Beatle versions. Still, the line between good taste and bad gets blurry here. Oscar Peterson sounds a bit ambivalent himself. The Pianist may noodle his way through a melody, laying low till a tune's second half. Once he gets going, he doesn't need the orchestra's help. But that doesn't mean he won't get.

(SOUNDBITE OF OSCAR PETERSON'S "SUNNY")

WHITEHEAD: Arranger Claus Ogerman turning Bobby Hebb's jazzy pop hit "Sunny" into an action TV theme. When Oscar Peterson does get revved up, his playing gets fast and fleet. But sometimes it's empty flash, as if the material didn't really inspire him.

My own mixed reaction to Peterson's "Motions & Emotions," both amused and unamused, is partly due to its unevenness, tottering between agreeably swinging jazz and frilly excess. So listening to it is a little like watching a bad movie with a few good scenes. On some level, you can like and dislike it at the same time. That's pretty deep for shallow music.

(SOUNDBITE OF OSCAR PETERSON'S "WAVE")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed the reissue, "Motions & Emotions" by Oscar Peterson. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with composer Nicholas Britell, whose score for the film "If Beale Street Could Talk" is nominated for an Oscar, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.