In The Presence of Greatness

Finding yourself in the presence of greatness can be a near overwelming experience. I’m not talking about walking into an elevator and finding yourself hip to hip to Tom Cruise. I’m talking about experiencing the kind of transcendent greatness that is almost only delivered by those rare artists that build steps for others that no one knew previously could support the kind of achievement these artists deliver.

I saw the 81 year old Oscar Peterson perform last night to a sold out crowd at Yoshi’s Jazz Club in Oakland, California. Peterson has been accused, like Mozart in "Amadeus" of playing "too many notes". Clearly he could not have laid his fingers on enough of them last night to satisfy me or anyone else in the crowd.

Peterson travels by wheelchair these days and is accompanied by an aid. A stroke a few years back nearly ended what was unquestionably one of the greatest artistic careers music has ever created. But he bounced back. Shuffling across the stage to a huge grand piano, Peterson made his way with an occasional nod to the standing audience. Even beneath the thunderous applause for him as he made his to his instrument, you could clearly detect the held breath of those who, like me, hoped he would make it across the stage.Oscar1_1

He did.

There is very little that can be said about Oscar Peterson without repeating past honors. His huge hands move across the keyboard with an effortless grace that makes it all the more amazing when those notes and commanding melodies and and modal tones envelope a room. There is no indication of age or stroke or slowing down when Peterson plays the piano. His fingers and hands appear to be infused with a memory that prevents any obstacle from getting in the way of his art.

I’ve yet to experience with wine an occasion that I could so clearly describe as "being in the presence of greatness." This is particularly true after being reminded of what I mean by that idea last night as I sipped on a couple of Manhattans and watched this virtuoso.

I’ve drunk great wines, wines that are honored by their singularity (Petrus, Grange, ’74 Martha’s Vineyard, etc). But it’s not the same. While winemaking can surely be described as an art, it is not an art that we see continually evolving and not one that continually reaches new heights. Nor do we generally see a wine or winemaker help redefining the art the way Peterson, Monk, Coltrane, Tatum and the others in that pantheon have.

This is not so much a knock on wine-as-an-art, but rather an acknowledgment that as an art, wine has its limitations.

It doesn’t appear that Oscar Peterson does.

Posted In: Events, Personal


5 Responses

  1. Fredric Koeppel - September 7, 2006

    I agree completely. I mentioned this point in a post several months ago on this blog when the subject came up, comparing the “art” of wine to the great arts like music, literature, painting and so on. As much as we may love wine for all its many nuances and dimensions (and I have been writing about wine for 22 years and, like you, have tasted many great ones), it doesn’t satisfy the spirit of humanity and imagination within us the way that a Rembrandt portrait does or Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello or “Ulysses” — or a great performance by Oscar Peterson. Of course now I’m wondering: What wine am I going to drink tonight?

  2. bob gustafson - September 7, 2006

    Very nice comments about Oscar. I had the pleasure of seeing him perform live 15-20 years ago.Glad to see is still going strong. I thought only old farts like me (age 60) appreciated jazz artists whose career dates back that far.

  3. Dezel - September 7, 2006

    Nice post,
    I always love finding new old music so I will certainly look this guy up. I have listened to Coltrane, Monk, etc. but this guy slipped under my radar.
    Just last month while talking to a coworker about the Psychedelic 60’s I discovered Arthur Lee and Love, a Californian band of the flower child days; their album Forever Changes is wonderful, I don’t see how that got by me.
    Also, very good point made here, I totally agree.
    Happy Sipping!

  4. dfredman - September 7, 2006

    “Greatness” is an overused term these days, along with “awesome”, but both words seem appropriate when used in the context of an artist such as Oscar Peterson. I’d agree that I’ve never had a gottle of wine affect me as intensely as a great musical performance, but I long ago got over judging them by the same standards. Great wine can be appreciated for the quality it exhibits and the flights of imagination it brings forth, but (for me at least), only music inspires me in the way you’ve described above.
    Must have been jazz night for the wine PR folks, as last night I caught a couple of James Carter’s sets at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City. He was fronting his organ trio and the performance was awe-inspiring, but in a different way than Peterson’s; with Oscar you’re witnessing a venerated master easing through a seamless demonstration of the art he’s perfected over many years. With Carter it was more an experience of watching a master explore the boundaries of his art, pushing the envelope as far as possible (while still making it swing). It was a wondrous thing to be a party to and the glow from the performance held up throughout a pretty dodgy day. And THAT’S what it’s all about…

  5. tom - September 7, 2006

    I saw James Carter in 1991 in Quebec City. it was a small, tiny little club. Wow…he blew the doors down.

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