Pianist Oscar Peterson is one of those artists who proves Laurie Anderson’s assessment that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Superficially he approaches jazz like countless others — with the standards and the show tunes — but he produces something remarkably bright and refreshing through unpredictable, yet melodic, improvisations.
He demonstrates jazz can be about sunny days and the outdoors, flora-filled hills and a tender moment with a loved one. Performing four days after turning 73, Peterson showed the effects of a stroke suffered three years ago only as he strode across the stage to the piano. From there on in, Peterson’s playing was testimony to the power of the human spirit, the result of his dedication to relearning the instrument without the full use of his once-powerful left hand.
Peterson and his quartet, featuring the durable bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson, debuted a pair of newly composed pieces in the 75-minute set. One, “When the Summer Comes,” showcased Peterson’s unmatched ability to compose in the Gershwin-pioneered tradition he has mastered; his meter keeps the human voice in mind at all times and the atmospheric support of Pederson putting a modern twist on the pianist’s art. Another new tune, composed for a tour of South America, draws its inspiration from Jobim with a hint of “Till There Was You.”
A pair of Duke Ellington numbers — “SatinDoll,” dedicated to Norman Granz, and “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” — found Peterson drawing on his former self: “Satin Doll” was a booming rendition and “It Don’t Mean a Thing” was a bullet train of notes, a duel between Peterson and the austere guitar of Ulf Wakenius.
Whereas Peterson has been the defining standard for the piano trio for the second half of the century, pianist Diana Krall takes a leap back to Nat Cole for her predictable seven-song set. She’s in a no man’s land between jazz musician and entertainer, drawing on classic pop of the ’30s and ’40s — Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin — and only occasionally emerging with something distinct.
At her best, she vocally draws on the powers of whispered seduction, as on a very cool “(I’ve Got You) Under My Skin,” and then counters it with Percy Mayfield’s dramatic blues, “Lost Mind,” a song Mose Allison has owned for decades and whose version greatly influences Krall’s. In Russell Malone, however , she has one of the most ambitious guitarists around. His solos and accompaniment drew on Brazilian music, banjo chords, country blues finger-picking and some fleet-fingered traditional work; as her labelmate at Impulse!, he should make the move to the opening slot and she should come clean, hire a big band and blossom into a welcome blend of June Christy and Peggy Lee.
The Mancini Institute Orchestra opened the evening with Ray Pizzi wildly improvising on the bassoon.