The death of Oscar Peterson on Christmas Eve caused a brief spike in what I think to be one of the most fascinating tropes in music reception: the reflexive mistrust of virtuosity. Peterson, was, of course, one of the greatest virtuosos of the past hundred years. A lot of the coverage of his passing, even that in a favorable tone, still cast a qualified eye towards all that technique.
Though Peterson has sometimes been criticised as a musician in thrall to his own runaway technique, he remained a great virtuoso of piano jazz, and an equally effective populariser of the music among those who might otherwise not have encountered it.
—John Fordham in The Guardian
Accolades followed him everywhere, but Peterson always had to fend off some critics who believed his technical prowess outweighed his ability to express emotion on the keyboard.
—Jeffrey Jones for Reuters
The critical ambivalence was typified in 1973 by a review of a Peterson performance by John S. Wilson of The Times. Mr. Wilson wrote: “For the last 20 years, Oscar Peterson has been one of the most dazzling exponents of the flying fingers school of piano playing. His performances have tended to be beautifully executed displays of technique but woefully weak on emotional projection.”
The complaints evoked those heard in the 1940s about the great concert violinist Jascha Heifetz, who was occasionally accused of being so technically brilliant that one could not find his or the composer’s heart and soul in the music he played.
—Richard Severo in The New York Times
I wasn’t going to bother with my own obituary of Peterson, since I figured it would simply be a lot of fanboy gushing: Peterson was the first jazz pianist I ever heard (via record albums appropriated from my dad—thanks, Dad), he pretty quickly became my favorite, and he never really relinquished the crown, although I fully admit I never had the time to keep up with his fearsomely prodigious output of recordings. If I’m going to talk about his virtuosity, though, it might be helpful to briefly analyze just what it was that set Peterson’s playing apart. Lots of pianists play fast; some of them play extremely fast. But Peterson played extremely fast and swung very hard, which is kind of a violation of piano physics. It’s relatively easy for fast passagework to either float above the beat or get you from a particular beat A to beat B. (This is why I’ve always thought the phrases in bebop tunes are always beginning and ending on odd parts of the bar—it delineates the outline of the swing without necessarily having to swing itself. It’s very cool in an op-art sort of way.) Peterson could judiciously vary the touch, tone, and weight of every one of those many notes so that the swing was embedded within the passagework. It was simultaneously solo and rhythm section. Pianists know how amazing this is; it’s the same as practicing a Scarlatti sonata for hours on end, trying to even out the sixteenth notes, then hearing Horowitz do it with such preternatural smoothness that you just throw up your hands. I never met another pianist who didn’t regard Peterson with awe. We’d tried it. We knew how hard he had worked to be able to do what he did.
In other words, I never thought that Peterson was letting his technique go on autopilot; rather, he was always putting his technique at the service of the rhythm. A lot of the critical ambivalence towards Peterson may have also had to do with another 20th-century trope, the idea that harmonic innovation is more important than rhythmic innovation. (I sometimes think that, a hundred years from now, the real importance of atonality will not be its supposed emancipation of dissonance, but that its abandonment of specifically harmonic tension and resolution enabled explosive growth in the field of rhythmic possibility.) Peterson’s allegiance to blues-based harmonies was simply a result of his creativity being more fully engaged in sculpting the rhythmic flow. Peterson’s rhythm is often compared to Count Basie’s, that hard, rock-solid swing, but Peterson’s technique let him keep that swing in more fluid, moment-to-moment play. It’s telling that, when I went from Peterson to Thelonious Monk, it didn’t seem all that big a jump to me. To my ear, Monk was using silence and accents the way Peterson used streams of notes and flourishes.
The difference, though, was that the basic building blocks of Monk’s vocabulary were the basic building blocks of sound: hard attack, soft attack, loud sound, soft sound, no sound. For Peterson, one of the main components of his vocabulary was his virtuosity, in the same way as a Chopin or a Liszt: technical difficulty, and the overcoming of technical difficulty, as an expressive resource in and of itself. Nowadays, whether out of a need for some sense of “authenticity,” or some inability to connect the craft with the art, or maybe even simply the lack of widespread instrumental musical experience as a frame of reference, Monk’s style (which, it should be pointed out, was just as much constructed and polished and practiced as Peterson’s) is held up as more “emotional”, “soulful”, “communicative”—insert your own word. I like Monk and Peterson, in large part because I don’t regard virtuosity as a sort of second-class musical element. But a lot of people do.
So why this distrust of virtuosity, this assumption that somehow, if your technique is astonishingly good, your emotional connection with the music must necessarily suffer? I think it has to do with the similarity between music and magic. (I’ve talked about this before; it’s one of my favorite pet ideas.) And, by extension, the connection between magic and outright chicanery. Magic is, after all, a benign con; at a certain point, the patter becomes so smooth and faultless that we instinctively start to protect our valuables. With virtuosity, too—it’s that omnipresent fear of looking like a rube or a fool. So instead of the natural reaction, which is to just let one’s jaw drop all the way to the floor, we try and assert some control over the situation, establish some parameter where we can at least seem to be engaging the experience on equal terms with the performer. And a big part of that is dismissing what the performer does that we can’t as impressive but somehow irrelevant to what really matters. (Professional athletes get this a lot. Yeah, but he’s still just throwing a ball.)
In Peterson’s case, this was exacerbated by the fact that the emotional content of much of his music-making was built around one of the most basic but uncomplicated emotions there is: joy. I don’t think it was a case of cynicism resisting that joy, just that it was so obvious that perhaps a critical exploration of it didn’t seem necessary, or didn’t seem to go beneath the surface. But that joy was powerful stuff, indeed. Every day, Oscar Peterson, a high-school dropout from suburban Toronto, the son of black immigrants, sat behind the piano and did things that nobody else on the planet could do. If you don’t think that there’s a deeply profound statement about the human condition right there, you’re just not paying attention.