The best of Oscar Peterson: Five essential albums by the master pianist
By Raina Hersh2021/06/28
Oscar Peterson is one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time.
Born and raised in Montreal, Peterson began playing piano at the age of five. By nine, he was playing at a level that impressed even professional musicians, and at 14, he began a professional career that would last more than six decades.
Known as the “master of swing” or the “king of inside swing,” Peterson made a name for himself with his incredible dexterity, speed and ornate technique on the keys. You’d be forgiven for thinking he’s playing with four hands. It’s immediately obvious how much love and dedication he has for his craft. Duke Ellington proclaimed him the “Maharaja of the keyboard.”
Over the course of Peterson’s acclaimed career, he won seven Grammy Awards, was awarded the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario, was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
With more than 200 published recordings to his name, it’s hard to know where to start exploring this body of work. But to help you on your journey, here are five standout recordings from this Canadian legend.
Oscar Peterson Plays Duke Ellington (1952)
Oscar Peterson’s interpretations of songs composed by and closely associated with Duke Ellington show his innate musicality and creativity. He’s able to retain the essence of what makes these songs great while also showing us a whole new side of their potential. This album is the perfect introduction to Peterson’s playfulness and signature speed that set the tone of his individual style.
Night Train (1963)
One of Oscar Peterson’s most popular albums, Night Train is also one of his most “commercial” albums, as just about all of the songs are kept to a radio-friendly five minutes or less. Though he’s led many trios over the years, this album is widely considered to feature the Oscar Peterson Trio, featuring bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen. Night Train features a fantastically fun C Jam Blues, a nostalgic-sounding take on Georgia on My Mind and the laidback Bag’s Groove.
My Favorite Instrument (1968)
This album is a wonderful spotlight on Oscar Peterson. My Favorite Instrument is the first solo album of his career, and it’s a joy to hear a virtuoso play unaccompanied. Here, we get to appreciate all the intricacies of his style and technique without anything else competing for attention. Peterson sets himself free to explore, play and reinvent some jazz classics. It’s an intimate concert that’s sure to impress.
The Trio (1974)
This Grammy-winning album marks Oscar Peterson’s return to playing in an ensemble after three years of exclusively playing solo. Here, he’s joined by guitarist Joe Pass and bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. One can’t help but marvel at Peterson’s inventiveness and sincerity. This recording is exciting, emotional and honest.
Nigerian Marketplace (1981)
At this point in his career, Peterson had been playing professionally for 40 years. Recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival, we can hear just how much he’s grown as a musician in that time. We are treated to a captivating medley of Misty and Waltz for Debbie, as well as the debut of Nigerian Marketplace, the first section of an extended work that would come to be known as Africa Suite.