Thursday, October 22, 2009

What a Jazz Pianist Should Be: Remembering Oscar Peterson

As originally published in the Times of Acadiana in January 2007....

Oscar Peterson, the great Canadian jazz pianist, passed away exactly one month ago--two days before Christmas, at the age of eighty-two--fourteen years after suffering a stroke that, despite compounding his chronic arthritis, only partially diminished the quality and frequency of his performances. He left a legacy that included more than one hundred albums, thousands of concerts, and the acclaim of a jazz community generally inclined to revere more troubled pianists (cf. Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Bill Evans).

Not that Peterson was untroubled. He lamented that his commitment to touring and recording cost him three marriages. Professionally, however, he was a model of sober productivity. Reared in a supportive and discipline-instilling family, he had by his mid-twenties become a star in an increasingly crowded jazz firmament. Over the years, he established himself and his various trios and quartets as standards of excellence and performed with everyone from Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Stan Getz to Billie Holliday, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Duke Ellington.

"Good Peterson albums are abundant," wrote Len Lyons in his 1980 book The 101 Best jazz Albums, "but great ones are rare." The statement was less a condemnation than a guide for consumers daunted by Peterson's vast discography. Lyons' favorite was 1956's two-LP In Concert, but he also singled out no fewer than ten others. Nat Hentoff, in his Peterson eulogy, listed as his favorites The Oscar Peterson Trio at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival (also 1956) and Night Train (1962) while admitting that it was "difficult ... to select any as the best." As for the National association of Recording Arts and Sciences, it awarded Peterson the first of his seven Grammies in 1974 for his album The Trio.

Peterson was criticized in some quarters for lacking the iconoclastic streak often associated with jazz genius, for exploring--admittedly with breathtaking dexterity--the inner world of standards rather than the as-yet-undiscovered galaxies of the musical cosmos. To immerse oneself in his playing, however, is to discover the wisdom of seeing heaven in a wildlfower and the world in a grain of sand. As Dave Brubeck once put it, "[B]efore he was twenty [Peterson] had already encompassed what a jazz pianist should be."

In recent years, Peterson became the subject of a uniquely twenty-first-century form of praise: the YouTube comment. "I love the expression of instant pleasure when he starts playing," reads one. Another: "It was a massive privilege to have seen him in concert." Yet another: "These great jazz musicians will never realize what they brought to millions of people, how much they motivated us, made us cry, laugh and dance." There are plenty more where such encomiums came from--and, tellingly, in more languages than English.

The very literacy and profanity-free nature (a rarity among amateur Internet commentators) of such comments is itself a tribute to the man who inspired them.

Friday, October 16, 2009

JASON RINGENBERG: American, Mars 'n Bars

As published in the Times of Acadiana, April 9, 2003....

It’s a cool Saturday evening--the Ides of March, to be precise--and Jason Ringenberg is seated at the Blue Moon CafĂ© in Lafayette, Louisiana, an hour before the first of two sets he’ll eventually perform, musing about the ultimate Bob Dylan tribute album. “To choose the twelve best Dylan covers,” he says. “That’d be really hard.”

More than most people, he has a right to an opinion. It was, after all, a full-throttle version of Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie” that propelled Ringenberg’s band, Jason and the Scorchers, to international prominence in the mid-’80s. The song made the Scorchers staples of both MTV and college radio, igniting a fan base that would eventually see them through two EPs, five LPs, two live albums, and 2002’s collectorama disc Wildfires and Misfires. Before Triple-A radio, Americana music, “alt-country,” and “No Depression,” Jason and the Scorchers were the first, middle, and last word in country-punk.

According to Ringenberg, the group--Ringenberg, Warner Hodges (guitar), Kenny Ames (bass), and Perry Baggs (drums)--hasn’t officially broken up. But when Baggs announced his retirement from steady gigging last year on the eve of a European tour, the Scorchers definitely took a hit. “It’s never been the same since then,” Ringenberg admits. “We’d replaced [original bassist] Jeff [Johnson] and got along all right, but replacing Perry, that’s like replacing Warner or me. I don’t think it can be done.”

To this end Ringenberg, now forty-four, has been honing his solo career, releasing Pocketful of Soul on his own Courageous Chicken label in 2000 and All Over Creation on Yep Roc Records last summer. Enriched with duets both high-profile (Steve Earle, BR5-49, Todd Snider) and low (the Wildhearts, Swan Dive, Kristi Rose and Fats Kaplin), Creation is the most stylistically diverse and musically ambitious release of his career. It’s also the reason he’s on the road these days, adapting to the intimate demands of venues like the Blue Moon.

He takes the stage promptly at nine, decked out like an antebellum Southern gentleman, giving his acoustic guitar what-for, and singing an unplugged version of Creation’s lead track, “Honky Tonk Maniac from Mars.” To those in the crowd too young to remember Ringenberg in his heyday, a honky-tonk maniac from Mars is what he might as well be.

But gradually, even among those who’ve come to drink first and listen later, he makes converts. Whether it’s his charming performance of an unabashedly silly ditty destined for a forthcoming kids album or his breakneck bluegrass version of the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” he knows how to work a room. By the time he’s finished charging through the Ramones' “I Wanna Be Sedated” (which he introduces as a "greater piece of twentieth-century American poetry than anything by T.S. Eliot or Samuel Becket") and “Jimmie Rodgers’ Last Blue Yodel,” he’s won over everyone but those who’ve been clustered around the bar all night. By the time he’s finished singing Hank Sr.’s “I Saw the Light,” literally unplugged and perched atop the bar itself, he’s won over even them.

“At first it was terrifying,” he says, referring to his middle-aged transformation into a one-man band. “I went from having the huge power of one of the greatest rock-and-roll bands ever to having just my little voice and my songs and my acoustic guitar.”

The terror, however, is rapidly subsiding.

“I’ve discovered that I do have twelve albums worth of good songs. When you walk into a room with that kind of material, you’re going to get something happening.”