The legendary Oscar Peterson has inspired countless musicians, but his singular artistry sparked a particularly strong desire in Michael Blum.
"I wanted to learn to play guitar like Oscar Peterson played the piano," Blum recalls-a daunting prospect for even veteran performers, but especially ambitious for a guitarist in his early 20s.
Blum proves to be up to the challenge, as evident on his third CD, Chasin' Oscar: A Tribute to Oscar Peterson, due out June 17, 2016. Blum's quartet revisits seven classics associated with Peterson, alongside two pieces written by the guitarist's mentor, bassist Jim Stinnett.
"I chose some of my favorite Peterson songs and a few that really tested me," Blum says.
A long car ride provides an ideal opportunity for uninterrupted listening, and it was on his weekly three-hour drives to Stinnett's home that Blum really connected with Peterson's music. The pianist's 1964 trio album, We Get Requests, with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen, became the soundtrack for these treks, fueling Blum's passion for Peterson's unique combination of profound emotion and boundless virtuosity.
"One of the things I really love about Oscar is his ability to do anything on his instrument," Blum says. "He could play fast or slow, hard or soft, pretty or nasty, bebop or blues-but he only played those elements that were perfect in the moment. He's sorrowful and sometimes joyous; invigorating and sometimes solemn. Listening to him is always interesting, and I wanted to emulate his emotional range in my musical homage."
Blum presented his idea to Stinnett, and while many teachers would balk at such an outsized objective, Stinnett simply nodded and began work with his young protégé. They first started collaborating three years ago, while Blum was a student at Dartmouth College.
"When I met Jim, he saw something in me that I don't think anyone had before," Blum recalls. "He recognized that I had all this passion and raw talent, but I didn't know how to hone or channel it. Working with Jim has been a growing experience technically, emotionally and mentally because he always believes that I can do anything, even before I believe it. Having him around gives me the confidence to pursue my goals. Without him, I'd probably be aiming lower."
Stinnett began by recommending Peterson's 1970 Tristeza on Piano, instructing Blum to learn the title track's solo note for note. Blum spent the next 18 months practicing it, as well as several other Peterson solos, for six to eight hours a day, learning the pieces by ear instead of transcribing them.
Several of the tracks on Chasin' Oscar feature Blum performing faithful re-creations of Peterson's original solos.
"Each of Oscar's solos is a work of art unto itself," he explains. "Like a Beethoven symphony, these tracks warrant the same kind of attention and study. I thought there would be no better way to pay tribute to Oscar than to play Oscar."
The album opens with one of its most challenging pieces, the Peterson original "Nightingale." Also from Tristeza on Piano, it features jaw-dropping, breakneck runs that highlight Blum's ability to keep pace with the famously fleet-fingered master. His bluesy soulfulness is on display in Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy," while "You Look Good to Me" takes a turn into vigorous swing and "The Girl from Ipanema" grooves as a laid-back bossa nova.
"East of the Sun (And West of the Moon)" and "Tenderly" spotlight Blum as crooner, featuring his tasteful, unvarnished vocals. The album ends with Stinnett's fitting, yet contrasting, contributions: the relaxed stroll of "Pine" and the twilit finale, "Whisper."
A native of Great Neck, NY, Blum's parents inspired him to study guitar. His father is a classically trained guitarist with a passion for jazz, while his mother enjoys singing. By age 21, Blum had already released his debut album, Initiation, accompanied by the same quartet that appears in Chasin' Oscar. Stinnett was integral in assembling the band of veteran players and educators: Stinnett on bass, pianist Brad Smith and drummer Dom Moio. Blum followed Initiation with his vocal debut, Commitment, in 2015.
Though young, Blum's style is deeply rooted in the jazz tradition. With his next release, Expansion, he'll venture farther into jazz fusion. Ultimately, he's interested less in the genre of music he performs and more in the emotion it elicits.
"At the end of the day, my goal is to make music that reaches people," he says.