There was a time when you could measure the height of a jazz giant by two yardsticks –how many imitators he had, or whether he even could be imitated. Like his predecessor Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson once seemed inimitable, his stupendous technique and range beyond the reach of mere mortals. But these days, technical standards have risen to the point where we could savor the Oscar Peterson experience with and without the master’s presence Wednesday at the Hollywood Bowl.
Consider Tamir Hendelman, the gifted pianist of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, who has been asked to memorize and perform Peterson’s solos in a new orchestration of his 1964 trio composition “Canadiana Suite,” with the composer in the wings. Should he have booked a flight out of town, as TV commercials suggest when you’re in a tight spot?
Well, if Hendelman had any trepidation, you couldn’t tell, for not only did he execute the difficult patterns flawlessly –especially in the mind-boggling sixth movement — he faithfully replicated Peterson’s feather-light touch. And with bassist Christoph Luty and drummer Jeff Hamilton providing a swinging base, this version of “Canadiana” — using six of the original eight movements — sported some intriguing sonorities (such as an oboe lead voice) from the CHJO.
Ironically, the Oscar Peterson of 2001 (he turned 76 on Aug. 15) is a somewhat changed pianist from the one who wrote “Canadiana Suite.” As heard on a huge, darkly sonorous Boesendorfer piano instead of the house Steinway, Peterson’s swinging, quicksilver ideas still roll forth — reaching a rollicking peak on “Satin Doll” — but not always with the old effortlessly liquid finish. Nowadays, he makes his most impressive impact on ballads — especially the touching, sturdy elegy that he wrote after the passing of John Lewis (“A Prelude for J.L.”) — and his current veteran quartet extensively features Ulf Wakenius’ fluid guitar. Indeed, Peterson’s latest album, a compilation of tracks made over the last decade, is simply called “Oscar’s Ballads” (Telarc).
James Moody, still a formidable tenor sax figure at 76, turned up on both ends of the concert — first in a smoky-toned “Body and Soul” and “Pick Your Take” with the CHJO and at the close of Peterson’s set with “Anthropology” and an inimitable, humorous vocal on “Moody’s Mood for Love.”
Illness sidelined Clark Terry, who was also scheduled to perform.