Last week at Rhinegold Live, the rush hour concert series at Conway Hall hosted by Rhinegold Publishing, Andrew Litton paid homage to pianist Oscar Peterson. At the end of the hour-long set – transcriptions that he has also recently recorded of Peterson solo performances – he talked about his devotion for the Canadian jazz virtuoso that dates back to the epiphanic moment one birthday in his late teens when Litton was first smitten.
He went on to reveal that, as a conductor, he likes to see orchestras adopt something of a jazz spirit in their playing. That doesn’t mean improvising as a jazz musician does (Litton admitted it’s a skill he does not have), but has something to do with adopting a liberated stance, giving the moment its share as well as the pre-rehearsed.
Of course, it’s a mistake to see jazz as merely anything goes (whether by Cole Porter or not). But it is easy to see how an artist such as Oscar Peterson might be a figurehead for the jazz-curious classical performer. Above all, there’s the phenomenal technique of the sort that classical musicians are supposed to aim to acquire and that some would claim distinguishes classical musicians from those working in other styles. And although this won’t have been what attracted the young Litton, there’s also the refined presentation, his use of fine concert pianos in concerts promoted in the same concert halls frequented by his classical counterparts.
In Peterson’s playing, that technical mastery is very much at the heart of his musicianship. But that’s not the case with every jazz musician. That means that classical musicians need to look further into jazz than the obvious role models like Peterson to find that jazz spirit, or sensibility or call it what you like. How, for instance, can we classical musicians translate the spirit and approach of a Thelonious Monk into our music? Not by emulating his sound or idiosyncrasies necessarily, but in order to discover a classical musicianship that stands in relation to the orthodox in the way that Monk does to Peterson?