This revered Canadian pianist, who left us only recently, had an amazingly prolific jazz career. His virtuosic solos have mesmerized generations of jazz fans and musicians alike. But I want to focus on a facet of Oscar Peterson that is almost always understated: his skill as an accompanist. In my opinion, he is the ultimate in what a singer could ever ask for: he’s always tasteful, always creative, never overpowering, and swings with such impeccable skill you’d swear he invented the sixteenth note. Through all of this he showcases the singer in what I can only describe as great generosity. He’s more concerned with complementing them than upstaging them, and it shows. Here are a few of my favorite recordings where Oscar and his boys back up singers:
Taking a Chance on Love (Vernon Duke, John Latouche & Ted Fetter) Anita Sings the Most with the Oscar Peterson Quartet: Anita O’Day (vcl), Oscar Peterson (p), Herb Ellis (g), Ray Brown (b), Jo Jones (d); Los Angeles, January 31, 1957
The intro is one of my most favorite ever. Simple and cute at first, then gives you something to chew on right before that gorgeous bass kicks in. Just listening to every perfect response OP has for each of Anita’s lines in the A sections gives me chills. This is one of those songs that I just can’t help but get mushy over.
You Are My Sunshine (Jimmie Davis & Charles Mitchell) Bill Henderson with the Oscar Peterson Trio: Bill Henderson (vcl), Oscar Peterson (p), Ray Brown (b), Ed Thigpen (d); February 1963
Sometimes I forget Peterson is playing on this one because Bill Henderson drives the song so directly for the whole performance. It’s really Peterson and his trio though who take the song, start it out, kick it into gear, kick it up even further, and bring it way way down at the end. I love how he is brimming with energy at the beginning of that second kick, but he starts calming the band down soon after for the ending. Classic.
Love Is Here To Stay (George & Ira Gershwin) Ella and Louis Again: Ella Fitzgerald (vcl), Louis Armstrong (tp,vcl), Oscar Peterson (p), Herb Ellis (g), Ray Brown (b), Louie Bellson (d); Los Angeles, July 23, 1957
I could write a whole post about how I think the Ella and Louis albums are the best examples of classic American music and how every American should own all three of them. Here we have one out of many classics, and who else could better compliment the royalty of jazz than the Oscar Peterson Quartet? It’s another perfect example of how Peterson knows how to stay understated and how to support the singers. I love how Ray Brown moves things into high gear during Satch’s trumpet solo.
That Old Feeling (Sammy Fain & Lew Brown) Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson: Louis Armstrong (tp,vcl) Oscar Peterson (p) Herb Ellis (g) Ray Brown (b) Louie Bellson (d); Hollywood, CA, October 14, 1957
Keeping it mellow again with Armstrong, Peterson and his quartet back him up as only they could. I love the interplay between Herb Ellis and Peterson on this one. Nothing too fancy on the guitar, but the way they dance around each other is perfect for this tune.When The Saints Go Marching In (traditional) The Complete Lionel Hampton Quartets and Quintets with Oscar Peterson on Verve : Lionel Hampton (vib) Oscar Peterson (p) Ray Brown (b, voc) Buddy Rich (d); New York City, September 13, 1954I had to end this post on a high note. Here Oscar backs up one of his own on vocals: yup, that’s Ray Brown singing, with the rest of the band egging him on. There’s actually way more instrument than voice here, but this fun rollicking session has the same great back-and-forth between the piano and singer that we’ve heard here before.
I’ve focused only on studio recordings here but there are also some examples of Peterson with vocalists in live settings. Comment if you have a favorite or if I’ve left out something essential. Probably the first thing that might shoot to mind is his album where he accompanies himself, but I purposely left out With Respect to Nat because there isn’t a relationship between two musicians there (and incidentally the vocals were recorded separately from the piano). It’d be a stretch to commend someone for not upstaging themself.