November 2000

Oscar Peterson - Trail of Dreams: A Canadian Suite
Telarc CD 83500
Released: 2000

by Srajan Ebaen

Musical Performance **
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment *

[Reviewed on CD]It’s the New Millennium. At its onset, some folks were predicting the end of the world in one cataclysmic blast. Others dreamed of evading humanity’s responsibility to clean up its own mess, and hoped for convenient mass abduction by benevolent Pleiadian space aliens. Music Canada Musique 2000 had its own nefarious designs. Under the artistic directorship of Nicholas Goldschmidt, works by more than 60 Canadian musicians were commissioned to cover a broad variety of musical genres under a multi-million-dollar Millennium celebration directive. As I said, nefarious.

Despite his humble demurral that he was no composer, Montreal-born jazz luminary Oscar Peterson was amongst those commissioned. He responded to the call, crafting a 12-movement tone poem inspired by the 16,000-kilometer recreational Trans Canada Trail. The trail begins in the island province of Newfoundland in the East and ends in the Okanagan Valley of Western British Columbia. It traverses Prince Edward Island, Peterson’s hometown; the Ontario Highlands; the central Manitoba Province; and the prairies of Alberta province along the way. The 12 movements depict highlights on this trek, such as the snowy peaks of Banff or Big Straggle Lake. The Peterson Quartet’s usual co-conspirators of Ulf Wakenius on guitar, Niels Henning-Ursted Pedersen on bass and Martin Drew on drums is augmented by Michael Legrand’s string arrangements performed by the Toronto Symphony. Even more surprising is the liner-note tidbit about the April 11 premiere at the orchestra’s Roy Thompson Hall: Peterson had never heard Legrand’s orchestration prior to the one-day rehearsal. He simply sent a tape of his tunes to the Grammy Award-winning composer of "The Windmills of Your Mind" (from the Thomas Crown Affair), along with some marginal electronic enhancements suggesting some basic background ideas. The remainder was left to trust and reliance on the impromptu inspiration that is the essence of jazz improvisation.

Adding strings to forms that originally saw no use for them is a common musical practice. The greatest risk lies in diluting the musical message. Strings can alter the essence of a song through overt prettification. I’m afraid that Trail of Dreams routinely veers off the straight and narrow in this manner. Think along the lines of certain manipulated tear-jerk movie moments that usher in the angelic chorus of sickly sweet violins to signal that deep emotions are afoot. When classically trained massed strings are used to cover through-composed thematic jazz material, their very precision and purity of tone utterly unravels the elusively jiving weave of, say, a Stephane Grappelli, who knows how to adapt the violin to a jazzy milieu. What happens without the Grappellification is a cloying and annoying light Broadway-musical effect that’s nothing but jazz-for-tourists.

Further, the old master on the piano is no longer as sure-fingered as he once was. He wisely limits his use of fast-run excursions across the clefs, but when he does follow those jagged arpeggio impulses sharpened by a lifetime of playing, he routinely stumbles and misses. That’s no indictment. I seem to recall reading somewhere that he suffered a stroke some years ago. Most of us would consider ourselves lucky if we were spared partial paralysis after such a tragedy, never mind playing piano in front of an audience. However, out of fairness to those potential buyers who recognize the name Oscar Peterson as the legendary musician he once was, and who expect bravura showboating, it must be said that this album will probably disappoint.

Obviously the folks at Telarc felt comfortable enough that they had a good one, since they committed it to posterity in down-converted DSD glory. And my problem with the disc isn’t with Peterson, after all, but with the strings, which add nothing to the jazz essence of his art. Color my disagreement a shade of intemperate youth -- I like my Cranberry juice au natural, pert and sour. Don’t cut it with sweet apple juice. But then, the preponderance of Ocean Spray CranApple probably proves that my personal opinion doesn’t amount to squat in the bigger scheme of record marketing.