Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

November/December 2008: Ross Porter

Oscar Peterson’s
The Canadiana Suite

Written by:

Home is an idea that most of us are familiar with. I call it an idea because that’s what it is—something intangible, a place we hold in our hearts and our minds. Home defines us, finds us, gives us refuge, solace, and comfort. Home can be made of bricks and mortar, a house or a town or a city. It can even be a person. But whatever form it takes, it’s still an idea. One that’s unique for each of us.

Oscar Peterson has an idea of home, formed while living the life of a successful jazz pianist travelling the world and seeing all of its possibilities and failings. I’m sure his concept of home has changed over the decades, but I think that one part has remained constant: Canada. There have been times when Canada wasn’t as good to Peterson as he’s been to it, but this is what defines a patriot: someone who serves and honours their country without expecting anything in return.

The Canadiana Suite is about Peterson’s home, Canada. It is an essential piece of Canadian culture to have in your collection, and one of his strongest musical statements. The album expresses his affection and pride for his country and the city where he was born, Montreal. The selections evoke a train ride across Canada. Peterson’s father, Daniel, worked as a train porter, and you can imagine him returning from his cross-country travels to tell a young Peterson about the sights he saw.

Many of the songs are blues-based and are a musical tribute to cities and places. The suite moves from east to west. “Ballad to the East” is a delicate, classically flavoured song about the Maritimes. The majestic “Laurentide Waltz” is about the Laurentian Mountains just north of Montreal. “Place St. Henri” is a swinging tune about the one-time working-class area of Montreal where Peterson grew up. The musical journey moves on to Toronto with Peterson’s elegant “Hogtown Blues” and then to Manitoba and Saskatchewan with the two Peterson classics “Blues for the Prairies” and “Wheatland.” The frisky “March Past” is about the Calgary Stampede parade, and the suite ends with Peterson’s tranquil tribute to the Rocky Mountains, “Land of the Misty Giant.” The Canadiana Suite is intimate and thoughtful, and Peterson’s playing is flawless and elegant.

I once had the pleasure of visiting Peterson at his home. As I approached the house he lived in, I noticed a face carved into the front door. It was pianist Art Tatum’s. I couldn’t help but smile and think, man, someone special lives here. And when I think of Oscar Peterson, and what his fellow Canadians feel about him, that sums it up. Someone special lives here.

And we should all thank him for that.

Choice Cuts is a new monthly column featuring a CD from Ross Porter’s book, The Essential Jazz Recordings (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2006).

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