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Los Angeles Herald Examiner

November 27, 1985



TV’s ‘On Stage at Wolf Trap’is a rare jazz treat


By Elvis Mitchell

Herald television critic


      “On Stage at Wolf Trap” (tonight at 10, KCET-Channel 28) features “the sweet, elegant jazz of Oscar Peter and Ella Fitzgerald” (those are host Beverly Sills’ words, not mine).  Pianist Peterson and Fitzgerald both personify a smooth, ingratiating professionalism.  In Fitzgerald’s case, it’s a vocal eccentricity that is so peculiarly appealing that it even survives the recent smug, shallow and vaguely patronizing Esquire story that attempted to detail her career and appeal.

      Peterson appears first, with a stellar trio that includes the trim, wily Joe Pass on guitar and John Heard on bass.  Pass’ eclectic strumming and Heard’s precise, suave bottom provide the foundation for Peterson’s nimble fingering.  It seems that the refined outdoor setting of Wolf Trap is the most apt place for Peterson.  His confident but detached playing has made him the object of criticism in some quarters.

      Perhaps Peterson’s been unfairly singled out for his blithe, but remote work (although he does play a Bosendorfer, which doesn’t exactly make it easy to come to his defense).  What those who take him to task for his distance rarely make note of is his pride and commitment.  The playing may sound glib and bright, but the control and concentration in his face tell the major story about the way he works.  Peterson obviously cares about what he plays, and the camera moves in and allows viewers a chance to catch the density of his focus. He moans and trills in asides to himself as he leans into the keyboard for some particularly hot, difficult playing.

     And by bringing us in to see the concern in his sweaty brow and full cheeks, “On Stage at Wolf Trap” deftly uses its advantage. The camera lovingly photographs Peterson’s rapt, determined expressions, which mean as much as the music and may perhaps give some of his detractors cause to rethink their opinions.

      Peterson’s a skilled technician, and his affection for jazz is communicated clearly.  But it’s not the plummy, stylish abandon that Ella Fitzgerald uses.  Fitzgerald’s technical skills and her love for the songs combine for a rich, enthusiastic performance.  Her singing is satisfying – warm and complete in something that eludes Peterson, for all his talents.  Somehow, you get the feeling that he wouldn’t make a fool of himself for jazz, and Fitzgerald’s consuming love of jazz makes her willing to wade in and have a ball.  Even at this stage of her career, she seems ingenuous and energized as she sings in the rounded, custardy style of hers.  But by offering up a pair of accomplished, and varied, jazz greats, “On Stage at Wolf Trap” seems as if it’s relaxing those bunched, cramped public television muscles. I just wish I didn’t have to refer to jazz on TV as if it were something out of the ordinary: it’s an indigenous and thriving art form, and we should be treated to it far more often.  The current sad state of affairs being the case, though, maybe it’s appropriate that “On Stage” airs the day before Thanksgiving.