Oscar Peterson was a star in Canada, his homeland, before Norman Granz brought him to this country in 1949 for a surprise debut at Carnegie Hall. He had his own Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program when he was fourteen. By the age of twenty-four, he was famous throughout the country and well known to the American musicians who heard him at the Alberta Lounge near the Montreal train station. Jimmie Lunceford tried to hire him for his big band. Basie urged him to move to the US. After the Carnegie Hall concert, Peterson went back to Canada, but in 1950 he joined the touring Jazz at the Philharmonic ensemble. He also formed a duo with Brown.
When Peterson decided to expand beyond the duo, he first used a drummer, but soon decided to model his trio on Cole’s. His first guitarist was Irving Ashby, a veteran of Cole’s group. In 1951, Barney Kessel agreed to sign on for a year and proved himself more than capable of meeting Peterson’s and Brown’s rhythmic challenges.
Kessel’s replacement in 1953 was another Southwesterner who was, like Kessel, under the spell of Charlie Christian and also loved Freddie Green, Basie’s rhythm guitarist. With Herb Ellis in the guitar chair for five years, Peterson’s group became the most celebrated trio in jazz. Their concert recordings are some of the most exciting music ever captured on record. All of the members of the trio have said that they were at their apogee at the Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare festival in August 1956.
As far as Peterson was concerned, Ellis was irreplaceable. When he left, Peterson did not consider bringing in another guitarist. Instead, Ed Thigpen joined the trio on drums in 1958 and stayed until 1965. Thigpen’s work is studied by drummers around the world, particularly for his incomparable use of wire brushes. The Peterson trio with Brown and Thigpen achieved its own personality and its own brand of swing. All Peterson’s recordings of the Thigpen era were based on the trio, whether they included a big band, or a guest. The London House sessions are to this trio what the Stratford concert was to the group with Ellis.
Following his years with Verve, Peterson has led other trios and achieved other triumphs, but many listeners believe that from 1950 to 1965 he had his finest hours.
Excerpted from Oscar Peterson’s Finest Hour