May 29, 2024

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Hello Herbie: Oscar Peterson is strong, precise and absolutely flawless: Videos, Photos

Pianist Oscar Peterson first heard guitarist Herb Ellis in the spring of 1953. Ellis was playing at a club in Buffalo, N.Y., with the Soft Winds, a trio featuring Johnny Frigo on bass and violin, and Lou Carter on piano.

Peterson and Ellis met briefly between sets, and the pianist filed away Ellis’s name. That summer, guitarist Barney Kessel, left the Oscar Peterson Trio. Tired of relentless touring, Kessel had decided to take on a growing list of recording commitments in Los Angeles. But before he left, Kessel recommended a guitarist to take his place: Herb Ellis.

Ellis joined Peterson and bassist Ray Brown in Boston in the late summer of ’53. Over the next five years, the Oscar Peterson Trio became one of the most tireless and in-demand jazz groups in the country. The trio not only toured throughout the year but also recorded as the de-facto house band for Norman Granz’s Verve label.

Ellis had plenty of endurance and a technique to match Peterson’s keyboard bombast, weaving lyrically in and around the pianist’s purposeful, muscular attack and soloing with a gentle flash. By 1958, Ellis was a superstar sideman and left the group to accompany Ella Fitzgerald in the studio and on tour. Peterson replaced Ellis with drummer Ed Thigpen.

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In the years that followed, Ellis recorded as a leader and as a sideman, mostly in Los Angeles. In 1965, he recorded with Peterson and Brown again on With Respect to Nat. Another four years would pass before Ellis and Peterson would be reunited in the studio. In November 1969, Ellis was in Europe and was convinced by MPS Records to team up with Peterson, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Bobby Durham in Villingen, Germany, at MPS’s Black Forest recording studios.

The result was Hello Herbie. On the album, Peterson is strong, precise and absolutely flawless, while Ellis takes brash solos when he’s not playing tasty rhythm guitar behind Peterson. The tracks are Naptown Blues, Exactly Like You, Day By Day, Hamp’s Blues, Blues for H.G., A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening and Seven Comes Eleven. [Photo above, from left, Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson and Herb Ellis]

The high-points for me on the album are Wes Montgomery’s Naptown Blues and the standard A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening. The former is a thrilling explosive swinger that features Ellis playfully doing a thumb-driven Montgomery impression before shifting into his own stylistic approach. Peterson’s solo is pure Milt Buckner, unleashing cascades of block chords. The latter song is taken at a walking tempo, giving the listener a chance to hear the articulation of both musicians in comparative slow motion.

The next three MPS studio albums by Peterson were equally magnificent: Tristeza on Piano, recorded in January and February 1970 with Jones and Durham;  Walking the Line from November 1970, with George Mraz on bass and Ray Price on drums; and Tracks, a solo album, also recorded in November 1970.

Oscar Peterson died in 2007; Herb Ellis died in 2010.

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[Photo above of Oscar Peterson with MPS Records’ Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer in Germany, courtesy of MPS]

Triste from Tristeza on Piano

Once Upon a Summertime from Walking the Line

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