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An age-old question: can there be too many notes for the good of the music?

I once had a conversation with a friend who opined that he wasn’t the biggest fan of Oscar Peterson. He thought that Peterson played too many notes. Since having this conversation I am reminded of the question of too many notes whenever I listen to the great pianist. This wasn’t something that had previously occurred to me with Peterson’s playing.  I mean, he’s Oscar Peterson, right? You just don’t expect to hear negative things said of him. It’s like someone criticizing Bach, say.

Oscar Peterson was, obviously, a tremendously proficient player. And that is the crux of the issue. He was able to play passages that leave most players in the dust. This gave him a wider range of possibilities than the average player had. And just because some of what he played is beyond the abilities of most players, some listeners suspect him of trying to impress when he is simply in his own imaginative zone, a zone allowed for and defined by his abilities.

Oscar Peterson’s playing could be ornate and full of notes, but I never get the sense that he was merely fitting in as many notes as he could just for the sake of it. Not at all. His playing reminds me, in one particular aspect, of French baroque keyboard music. Both are filled with ornament. In fact, Peterson often made use of a kind of turn that is reminiscent of a baroque turn. To me, his ornamentation tastefully added to his melodic lines in a stylized way, similar to the ornamentation in baroque keyboard music.  Sure, if you play many ornaments, the music will be busy; but if you play them correctly, and tastefully, the ornaments themselves become of interest because they create a complex, multilayered effect. And they become of interest in and of themselves because of their intricate, worked out nature. Kind of like looking at a piece of furniture, say, that is very finely and extensively engraved. You can concentrate on the overall shape of chair, or you can look at the decorations, or both.

And Peterson’s ornaments and runs were always in the service of swinging the music. What primarily jumps out at someone listening to Peterson is not so much the ornaments, but the swing. That is the messages of his music to me.

The question of too many notes again came to mind the other day when I was listening to the Dizzy Gillespie/Stan Getz album Diz and Getz. Is there such a thing as too many notes? In the case of Dizzy Gillespie, I would again answer no!

No listener can help but be impressed with Gillespie’s technique; as a brass player, my reaction to Gillespie’s playing has a big element of wow in it. But again, the main musical message to me is joy and creativity. Gillespie didn’t play dull runs with little musical interest; rather, his lines are incredibly interesting and full of life. And Gillespie could, just like Peterson, slow down and remain tremendously interesting.

In the cases of Oscar and Diz, they couldn’t play too many notes.

By Rob Tilley