In the 26 years that I've been attending or, occasionally, working for the Ottawa International Jazz Festival my clearest memories are of the solo piano recitals. They were a cornerstone of the festival's programming for many years; now more of a special occasion when someone like last night's guest—Vijay Iyer—is booked.
Perhaps these concerts are clearest because for a couple of years in the '90s the solo piano series was my main reviewing assignment for the daily newspaper. Day after day throughout the 10 days of the festival I'd join the audience and immerse myself in 70 or 80 minutes of solo piano: from Andrew Hill to Joey Calderazzo, from Marilyn Crispell to Jennifer Williams. Reviewing a solo piano concert is perhaps the most challenging kind of arts writing because it's such a personal experience. It's just the musician, the instrument and the audience, and every artist approaches the experience a different way. Some, like Williams, engage the audience, turning the performance into more of a musical conversation. Others, like Hill and Crispell, might as well be playing alone in their practice space; they are so fully engaged in the music that the audience is almost superfluous. Finding an entry point to writing about some solo piano concerts can be a challenge.
I think my former colleague Doug Fischer did a superb job of capturing last evening's first set by Iyer in this review.
Reviewers often exchange impressions after a show. If Doug and I had been doing that last night—instead, I was being feted by my wife at a fabulous birthday dinner—we would've been in complete agreement.