Friday, July 28, 2017

Fantasia ’17: Oscar (short)

Legendary jazz producer Norman Granz knew what he was doing. It would be quite a challenge for just about any musician to make their American debut during a Jazz at the Philharmonic Concert at Carnegie Hall, but Oscar Peterson killed it. Not merely the greatest Canadian jazz musician thus far, Peterson probably led the best-selling, most acclaimed mainstream swing piano trio—ever. He took the place Nat King Cole vacated to become a full-time crooner, making the piano trio bigger than ever. Marie-Josée Saint-Pierre mixes animation and archival footage to pay tribute to the master in the National Film Board-supported short film, Oscar, which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

O.P., as he was sometimes called, played his final bars in 2007, but he left behind a rich and extensive recorded archive. He was also interviewed on numerous occasions, so Saint-Pierre had plenty of primary sources to draw from. We do indeed hear Peterson recall his sink-or-swim debut and also listen to him self-deprecatingly tell the famous story of how he erroneously assumed an Art Tatum record was a piano duo, which is probably the second most famous event in the O.P. creation story. Fans would probably prefer to hear more about his great trios, but Saint-Pierre opts for the personal side of Peterson, in which he forthrightly admitted the demands of his profession put unfair stress on his first wife.

We hear a great deal of the Peterson touch in Oscar and it still sounds sophisticated yet infectious. The film is also attractive looking, frequently framing the archival performances and interviews in suitably urbane animated foregrounds. Saint-Pierre and animator Brigitte Archambault previously collaborated on the documentary short McLaren’s Negatives, which explored the creative process of Canadian animator Norman McLaren, whose 1949 short Begone Dull Care was scored by Mr. O.P., so presumably they shared a full understanding of Peterson’s significance as well as a strong working relationship—at least we would so assume from the stylish finished film.

It is hard to explain what a giant, transcendent figure Peterson cut in his final years. When he came to town to perform a concert, he was more like the earthly personification of jazz itself than a merely mortal musician. This is someone who recorded on equal terms with Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Ella Fitzgerald. Saint-Pierre’s film gives us a taste of what made him so special. Frankly, the only problem with the film is it isn’t longer. Peterson’s life and Saint-Pierre’s approach could easily sustain a two-hour feature treatment. Recommended with affection, the fan-making Oscar screens tonight (7/28), with L’Ange et la Femme, at this year’s Fantasia.

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