Review Summary: Simply put, classy.
The main thing that people don’t “get” about jazz is the improvisation. Especially when present to the current generation, people are just daunted by a ten minute jazz pieces that is essentially a main theme and then a solo that takes variations on that theme or chord progression. There was a time when jazz was ‘the’ style of music, back during the golden age of the genre, but today’s hook happy listeners just don’t get it. With the risk of sounding better-than-thou, I feel I should mention that I too am a hook happy listener, I just happen to appreciate jazz more then the average person nowadays. Now, if I were to introduce another fellow listener who was uneducated in the art of jazz, there are only a few personalities I would look to first. Ray Charles, Buddy Rich, Billie Holiday, or even perhaps Duke Ellington would all be near the top of my list. The very first artist I would show to said viewer though? None other then famed Montreal piano virtuoso Oscar Peterson.
What better album to start off with then his trio’s classic Night Train? The trio consisting of Peterson at the piano, Ray Brown on the bass and Ed Thigpen on the drums. Brown contributes a nice rhythm section and turns in a few good solos, Thigpen is meat and potatoes in his role, generally keeping time with a few classy fills. Both men play their parts very well, and suit the music, but everyone knows the real star is Peterson. One of the best traditional jazz pianists (if not the best, though Monk fans might argue otherwise), Peterson plays gracefully and with incredible speed. Take “C-Jam Blues” for instance, the standard jazz piece features a great solo full of difficult runs and plenty of ornamentals to make the piece sparkle. His playing is great throughout the entire album, but importantly, it remains restrained. This is why Oscar Peterson would be the first jazz artist I would look to when introducing someone to the genre. He has the talent to make incredibly difficult music, but he has the tremendous ability to keep his pieces rooted in an accessible melody.
Take for example, “The Honeydripper” with it’s locomotive bass clef and twinkling right hand arpeggios make for a catchy hook. This immediately draws the average listener into the music, giving them something they can identify with, before amazing them with the technical prowess of Peterson. Of course, using such familiar standards as the previously mentioned “C-Jam Blues” or “Georgia On My Mind” does help. Still, with enough listens, the audience will be just as familiar with other songs such as the slow burning “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” or the smooth styling of “Band Call”. There isn’t a bad song on the album, in fact there isn’t even an average song, they are all good. One stands slightly above the rest though, and this is the beautifully stirring “Hymn to Freedom”. The slow moving piece begins with just Peterson, until the rest of the trio joins to back him in his solo (ironic, I know). The solo crescendoes into a rousing cadenza that rolls through a variation on the main theme. The piece is absolutely breathtaking, and I must disclose that it is quite possibly my favorite jazz piece of all time.
Night Train is pure class, through and through. It takes the accessible elements from traditional jazz and molds them with the virtuoso playing abilities and soloing of free jazz. It’s a marriage that allows Oscar Peterson to showcase both his ear for great melodies and his blistering pace across the keys. This is an album that you can through on at an intimate dinner party, or you can sit and listen to and pick apart the complex parts. This is the main factor that makes the album such a great one. So, I hope next time someone comes up to you and says, “hey I’m trying to get into jazz, do you know where I should start?” you will know the answer to this question. Oscar Peterson. Night Train.