An Exploration of Oscar Peterson's Sound & Approach


What is Oscar’s fundamental sound? What really separates his sound from other jazz pianists?

First, he digs into the blues. His swing style could be described as very heavy.

You know, like when you bob your head, when the teacher is saying something great, and you have no clue but just go along with it? And your whole neck shakes and your grin turns into a smile? Yeah. Like that.

Not a lot of pianists go heavy on the swing, especially in later generations. But he did.

His weight on the keys though… I don’t mean weight on the bench. He was a force to be reckoned with. You can hear the strength he puts into the keys.

And his touch? This is one of the most signature things about Oscar.

Do you know what this does, when a musician has not only accuracy at the piano, but strength as well? It gives a fuller tone. Actually, it supports accuracy as well. Kind of like a marriage. Yuck. Anyway…

Piano teacher Josef Lhevinne speaks to this fundamental concept in his book, Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing (apparently from the 18th century when pianos couldn’t decide if they were also fortes). He notes that many beginners to piano form an excellent hand position, and yet the perfect touch is, well… overlooked or hard to conceive of from the start.

So what does touch have to do with Oscar’s sound? What are his hand positions like?

Two things:

1.     In regular playing, each stroke (or most) reach the bottom of the keys (key beds)

2.     When Oscar is going fast, he does the opposite. Detache they call it in classical piano.

Let me explain in a little more detail.

As for number one, classical pianists recommend that strokes should ideally reach the bottom of the keybed. (If you didn’t go to bed every night, you wouldn’t sound good in the morning either, would you?)

Actually, this practice was hard for me to grasp until later in my playing. I’m a skinny guy. I don’t have a lot of weight at the piano. I also like soft sounds. But for Jazz, even my piano tuner told me that I needed to dig in to the keys more. Per Danielssohn, my first jazz piano mentor told me that as well.

Now the second: detache

This term is usually used for string players, meaning literally "detached" or "separate bow strokes" per note. But the same idea applies when playing fast on piano. When I play this way, I think about letting my fingers be a little stiffer, and also keeping my range of motion smaller. That is, my wrist does not have to go as far up and down, because it is simply pushing off from each note for its leverage, whereas when playing slower, the expression between note to note can be exaggerated.

Detache doesn’t care about digging in as much.

This is really what sums it up:

It requires less vertical motion, because it is more horizontal motion (arpeggios or scales up and down at a fast velocity). Some of that speed is combined by the power of moving the hand horizontally.

The combination of strength and accuracy, was what gave Oscar such a unique sound.

Actually, his ability to quickly change between legato heavy strokes on the keys, to detache fast arpeggios, are what characterize his overall touch and unique character in sound. This is much the same as great singers—they modulate the part of their instrument (their head) at quick rates and play around with different combinations of vowels in songs.

I hope this gives you an idea of why Oscar’s precise and varied touch affected his unique sound.

Introduction – I hate them, so I’m putting it at the bottom.

Oscar Peterson.  A name that strikes fear into the most fortitudinous jazz pianists.

A descendent of the legendary Art Tatum, Oscar took jazz piano across the states and beyond America, and especially popularized it amongst European audiences, such as his TV viewings with the fellow orchestral conductor and jazz pianist, Andre Previn!

Like “Pops” (Louis Armstrong) he faced racial discrimination, but his attachment to piano and music brought him and the world great harmony and soul. He was also an active educator on piano and jazz, writing some etude books and lecturing with the aforementioned.