Author: Ashenfelder, Michael
Date published: March 1, 2013
Oscar Peterson. Easter Suite. DVD. Produced and directed by Alan Benson. [Leipzig, Germany]: Arthaus, 2012, 1984. 107063. $19.99.
Easter Suite is Oscar Peterson's musical interpretation of the Passion, Jesus's suffering, death and resurrection. That might seem to be a stretch for a jazz trio, especially when compared to monumental works on the same theme, such as Johann Sebastian Bach's passions. Granted, other jazz artists have experimented with religious themes, like Duke Ellington with his sacred concerts and Dave Brubeck with his oratorios. But whereas, say, Ellington has the timbral palette of his orchestra to draw from, Peterson works solely here with an instrumental trio. So the challenge for Easter Suite as a composition is both in the idiom ( jazz) and the instrumental resources (piano, bass and drums).
I'm not sure if Easter Suite works as an inspirational religious composition, but it is certainly intriguing in its ambition and reach. And it surely deserves a place with other jazz religious compositions. But essentially Oscar Peterson can do no wrong and Easter Suite is worth a respectful listen.
Commissioned and broadcast by ITV's (U.K.) South Bank show in 1984, this rerelease was Easter Suite's world premiere. Each of the nine songs that comprise Easter Suite attempts to evoke a feeling or suggest a dialog in the linear story of the Passion. For example, the opening number, "The Last Supper," is a lovely ballad for solo piano that evokes a somber mood, fitting Jesus' saying goodbye to his apostles for the last time.
It segues to "The Garden of Gethsemene," a softly swinging, mid-tempo tune; I'm not sure what it evokes, but it sounds terrific. Drummer Martin Drew plays restrained, steady brushwork as bass player Niels-Henning Orstedt Pedersen plays the melody. Pedersen's technique is strong and lyrical; his bass sings. "The Garden of Gethsemene" is also an example of one of Easter Suite's strengths: some of the melodies are so catchy, they seem as if they have accompanying lyrics that just aren't being sung at the moment.
"Denial" depicts the hubbub around Jesus's capture and the apostle Peter denying that he knows Jesus. The song is uptempo and rousing, with tense drum fills and periodic jaggedness in the melody. Still, the song swings, as most of the songs in Easter Suite do. It's as if Peterson can't not swing.
The next two songs also fit their subjects well. "Why Have You Betrayed Me?" is a soft, plaintive tune. Peterson plays the melody once and the second time around lightly harmonizes it and sprays gentle splashes of embellishment. "The Trial" has a martial feel, which evokes uniformed guards and military gravitas. Drew uses mallets for the snare rolls and the trio pounds in unison on the doom-like descending bass line, which is featured as prominently as the melody.
By contrast, "Are You Really King of the Jews?" is one of the least evocative of Easter Suite's songs, though it doesn't really matter. The tune is a swinging 12-bar blues romp and Pedersen and Peterson both take solos. Peterson stretches out and showcases his range of chops: clean, precise technique; two-handed block chords; Art Tatum runs; and a hard swing throughout.
The ballad, "Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?" is organic patchwork of styles, the most prominent of which are a Bach-like phrasing (maybe it's a tip of the hat to Bach for his Passions?) and swelling and contracting dynamics at the climax. "Jesus Christ Lies here tonight" opens with its gorgeous melody played so gently that it almost feels rubato, but it becomes clear after the statement of the melody that the song is in a placid 3/4 time. The song veers close to becoming a cool jazz waltz during Peterson's solo but fades back to placidness by the end. And again, you can hear the title of the song articulated by the melody, suggesting lyrics that aren't there.
The final song, "He Has Risen," shouts for joy. The tune is all stop-time and instrumental punches, and after the trio runs through the head a few times it becomes a straight-ahead up-tempo swing fest. Drew and Peterson take solos, and Peterson brings it home with blues-inflected be-bop runs.
The "Extras" track features Peterson in a pre-performance interview with the TV host, talking about his reasoning and his approach to the composition. Peterson said he appreciated the opportunity to create the piece because it allowed him to explore four-part harmony and moving inner voices. He also talks about creating a dialog between instruments, where one instrument makes a statement and another answers it.
Overall it's a DVD well worth owning. The audio is well balanced, it's nicely shot and it's fun to watch. I found the placement of the players interesting. Peterson faces the viewer's right, Pedersen is over his leftshoulder and Drew is behind Peterson. There's not a lot of eye contact; they're not in the position for it, or at least the rhythm section isn't in a position for eye contact with Peterson. They're just so tight and polished that they don't need to cue each other.
The camera work is interesting for the shots the director opted for. There are shots of hands, though not always the hands of whomever has the solo. That's not always a bad thing but the camera does direct the viewer's attention and the viewer might want to see the soloist's hands instead of whatever the director dictates the live camera to focus on.
There are some nice overhead shots of the trio. And sometimes the shot is framed with a close-up of Peterson's hands in the foreground and Pedersen's hands visible in background-just the hands of both players in the frame.
Despite the dramatic subject matter, the music in Easter Suite is so gorgeous that the DVD stands on its own as a pleasant listening experience. It could easily be background for dinner music. The wonderful mystery of good art is that it can't be confined to just one interpretation.
Library of Congress