I saw Oscar Peterson play piano a few times in the 1960s, when he was in his prime, as he was in previous and subsequent decades by all accounts.
As a piano player who played some jazz as a young man, I knew a little about the instrument, and the first time I heard and saw Peterson play live (and up close I might add from an angle that afforded me a clear view of the keyboard) I thought, this cat knows more about the piano than anyone.
He was, from my point of view, the greatest technician of the piano. There were others whose style I loved more, say Bill Evans, or whose originality was way beyond Peterson, say Thelonious Monk, or who played more soulfully or sensually or individually.
But no one played technically better. He was the master of that instrument, and proved it pretty much every time he played from what I knew and heard.
There was a precision and control, an exactitude and fearlessness of attack that may have been matched by others at times, but only at times and only in limited detail. Oscar Peterson always nailed every detail of every riff he initiated, and his riffs included unlimited detail.
Some of the ways you know it’s Monk is by the unique harmonics and staggered rhythmic approach, Bill Evans by the almost ephemeral touch and thoughtfulness, Ahmad Jamal by the use of space in his phrasing, etc.
But the way I always knew it was Peterson was the technical virtuosity, just a bar or two in, or even less, and my ear would alert me to that precision, that claim on every last key, and the seeming determination to use every one in as many ways as possible before the song was eight bars in.
He always came across as an affable man, an easy going, untormented creator. But he also always made it clear every time he played that he owned that space, that place, that seat at that instrument by virtue of his ability to make it do exactly what he wanted and what he always seemed to want to do was demonstrate every possible technical approach to whatever chord was at the root of the phrase he was playing.
Not in the way say Coltrane explored every approach to a chord and later to a tone, or Dolphy every possible way of playing a note taking it sometimes to beyond note-ness into the realm of animal or mineral or unidentifiable source of sound.
Peterson was a lot less complicated and experimental than that. He was playing pure tones, pure notes, pure expressions of the European scale and the blues-initiated use of minor keys and flatted fifths etc. that were the bones of “jazz” from its inception to late style Coltrane.
He didn’t seem interested in, or have much of a capacity for the unique chord extensions and configurations of Monk etc. He seemed contented just to play what others had already discovered and pioneered, but to play that with twice or thrice or more times as many notes, and faster, and still make every note ring true as if it were the tuning fork of the god of music.
And he always seemed to take great pleasure in doing that, as if he was aware that this was his gift, this was what he had to share, his enormous technical facility that made any piano he played sound not like him, not like his soul, not like his unique idea or message or break with the past, but simply like a piano played by the best piano player you ever heard.