The Wizard from Algiers

Martial Solal—One of the World's Great Piano Virtuosos Deserves More Props in America

They haven't put up a statue of the magisterial keyboard genius Martial Solal yet, but he may very well get one someday. Not in the U.S., of course, but in France, the country that erected a monument to Sidney Bechet—the legendary jazz figure who, coincidentally, co-led the 1957 recording session that brought the Algerian-born pianist his first taste of international acclaim. At 72, Solal is still very much with us, playing in top form, which is to say he perseveres as one of the finest and most undervalued jazz pianists in the world.

If Solal remains more of a historical footnote or an object of connoisseurship than an active presence in the United States after six decades of acclaim, the pianist bears some of the responsibility. Solal does not record for a major stateside label, nor, to my knowledge, did he even perform on these shores during the '90s. The annual U.S. visit, à la Johnny Griffin, or even the occasional U.S. jaunt, is not in the picture. Solal is revered in much of Europe, where he lives a comfortable and active life. Considered by many the most significant jazz musician to arise from the continent since Django Reinhardt, he won Denmark's prestigious Jazzpar Prize in 1999.

Solal makes tough music. No wild free-jazz avant-gardist, he is a bebop baby who also reveres the improvising titans of the swing era and the clear-minded modernists of postbop. Intimations of Bud Powell, Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Thelonious Monk, and Bill Evans dart throughout his music. Don't look for tone clusters or slamming, loosely articulated power runs from a classically trained stylist who makes each note sound as if it were chiseled out of granite. His recordings are chock-a-block with American songbook standards, variations on blues and "rhythm" changes, and jazz classics. Solal, nonetheless, is a die-hard abstractionist. While adhering to the challenge of recognizable song forms, he splinters the rhythms of his lines to a degree that makes even the most sympathetic of jazz listeners nervous.

There's no safety in Solal's keyboard jaunts; they don't take you firmly by the hand and lead you confidently along to their destination, as the work of great mainstream pianists like Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan do. Solal, in contrast, is at the controls of a careening roller coaster. His phrases don't line up like ducks. They dart and dash, speed up and then double back, bending this way and that, playing with and defying all expectations. Solal is a phenomenal technician and a keen melodist who regularly reconfigures harmony. But his wild, daring, and utterly winning use of rhythmic displacement remains his greatest gift.

Solal's rhythmic autonomy asserts itself with spectacular boldness when he ventures into free jazz. In the absence of predetermined harmonies, his innate sense of form allows him to construct grand edifices that roil with unexpected rhythms and melodies. His steely touch and diamond-hard articulation may not make him the warmest of players, but they enable him to state his ideas with near-scientific precision, as well as to mercilessly slash away all traces of sentimentality.

In his sixth decade of performing, Solal's playing remains defiantly cliché-free. Unfortunately, for many, this amounts to tearing away a cherished security blanket. In the stylistically straitjacketed atmosphere of the current jazz scene, I doubt Solal would stand a chance. He is his own man to the nth degree. For all his fealty to the American jazz tradition, Solal would probably be hounded out of here if he tried to put down roots, though not before he scared the pants off of every pianist under 50.

A jazz critic friend tells a story of an amiable blindfold test among colleagues. Listening to an unfamiliar Solal record, one critic thought the pianist was Art Tatum, another Cecil Taylor. The stylistic disparity is telling. As audacious as Tatum, Solal is also as forward a thinker as Taylor. Which is one reason I find Solal the most listenable of the three. Imagine a more melodically inclined Tatum divorced of the obsessive arpeggios and inappropriate quotations, or a more disciplined Taylor intent on using his prodigious techniques in the service of a song, and you have Solal at his best.

By the time he was 30, Solal was already a legend among European jazz musicians. His 1950s recordings with visiting and expatriate American players, including Kenny Clarke, Don Byas, and Lucky Thompson, feature an inventive pianist thoroughly at ease with idiomatic jazz. The Bechet-Solal collaboration When a Soprano Meets a Piano is a lovely display of two canny players finding common ground between superficially dissimilar styles. From that point on, Solal's brilliant career became a catch-as-catch-can affair for American listeners. We hear of Solal sessions with figures like Lee Konitz, Stan Getz, Stephanie Grappelli, Niles Henning Orsted-Pedersen, John Scofield, Attila Zoller, Roy Haynes, Hampton Hawes, Marc Johnson, and scores of others, not to mention the pianist's trio, small group, big band, and solo projects. Yet only a handful of those records have appeared, however briefly, on these shores. Of recently available Solal recordings, including Balade du 10 Mars and Contrastes (the latter a live album that finds the pianist exhibiting his exemplary talents as a big-band composer and arranger as well as keyboard virtuoso), the one I value the most is Just Friends, recorded in 1997.

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