Strictly Solalian

Martial Solal Plays Everything All at Once

Probably the worst label one can stick on a jazz musician is Intellectual, a nebulous term that almost always serves as a warning: You may be expected to do some work—if you consider close listening work. The second most insidious label is Virtuoso, which is invariably smudged with special pleading. Combine the two and you may be left with an artist who requires rapt attention while compensating for emotional reserve with technical dazzle. You might well call it spinach and say the hell with it. But your roughage might be Jack Daniel's to me. At one time, Ahmad Jamal and Bill Evans were characterized as skillfully complex, usually to hold them at bay, yet each man attracted a passionate cult that fermented into substantial popularity. Jamal usually keeps me at arm's length, while Evans often invites me in; it may be the opposite with you. Lennie Tristano is still routinely described as cerebral, which once seemed tenable to me, yet now I find his Atlantic sessions flat-out thrilling. We could make this a parlor game, identifying undoubtedly brilliant musicians—Benny Carter, Lee Konitz, Herbie Nichols, Henry Threadgill—who remain alien to a broad audience.

It may seem inconceivable today that Parker, Gillespie, and Monk were initially derided as spinach, and yet they did contribute to the dismantling of the audience that embraced jazz in the 1930s, much as Coleman, Taylor, and Coltrane wore out many who came aboard in the 1950s. But they're in the pantheon. I'm concerned here with those who keep circling Olympus without quite getting a foothold, of whom the patron saint is Art Tatum—the virtuoso's virtuoso, the pianist's pianist, the musician's musician, who to this day, because he rejected a standard approach to linear improvisation, preferring juxtapositions that demand serious attention, worries many listeners into hapless indifference. His primary heir is the astonishing French pianist and composer Martial Solal, whose appearance at the Village Vanguard during the week of September 18 began with a half-filled house only partly attributable to the events of the preceding Tuesday.

Around the time Solal first visited America, in 1963, the forever staid Martin Williams got so heated that he closed his review alarmed that he might have written a "panegyric." "I do not mean that," he apologized, then cast about for a caveat—something about Solal not being a natural blues player. He closed with reference to "Solalian lyricism," coining an adjective that has become so widespead in European jazzcrit that it sometimes gets a small s, though it refers less to lyricism than to a timeless fluency that transcends genre and idiom. Williams subsequently interviewed Solal for the Saturday Review. The pianist affirmed the influence of the bright, orchestral keyboard stylists—Tatum, Waller, Garner—before absorbing Powell, from whom, he conceded, he took more than from anyone else save Tatum. He said he knew little of classical music after Debussy, putting to rest assumptions of an au courant academic education—in fact, like Monk, another influence, he found his method largely through the grammar of jazz. He also noted that he had not heard Bill Evans's records with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian (a frequent Solal drummer) until arriving in New York, underscoring what his 1960 trio sessions with Guy Pedersen and Daniel Humair prove—that he was striving for a triangular, equal-participation approach to the piano trio at the same time as Evans and Jamal.

Solal had been around. He was born in Algiers in 1927, and according to an old liner note was expelled from school in 1942 because of race laws (his father was Jewish). He turned to jazz after hearing Goodman, Waller, and Reinhardt, among others, and played piano, saxophone, and clarinet professionally, eventually realizing he would have to relocate to Paris to have a career. He made the move in 1950 and soon earned a reputation, appearing on Reinhardt's last session in 1953, working with visiting American players, writing orchestra charts, and scoring New Wave films by Melville and Godard. His 1960 trio made a tremendous impression, as did his ability to spontaneously recompose familiar themes. Solal's unaccompanied 1960 version of Tadd Dameron's "The Squirrel," for example, is a rigorous paradigm of virtuoso exultation kept in check by his uncanny control of form—just when you think the fingers will fly away, the gravity of the piece and his sense of proportion bring them home.

As of 1963, Solal was known here, if at all, for the movie Breathless and two enduring if little-remembered albums. In 1957, he had recorded with the New Orleans guru Sidney Bechet, at the older man's request; their mutual give-and-take, shown to advantage in robust exchanges on "These Foolish Things," proved that the generations could meet profitably at a time when they barely glanced at each other. Throughout, Solal shows originality, clarity, empathy, and a signal cleverness, as in the reharmonization of "It Don't Mean a Thing" or a "Rose Room" solo that simply extends his comping behind an uncharacteristically overwrought Bechet. The other album documented a 1962 concert at Paris's Salle Gaveau, beginning with a rhythmic deconstruction of "Jordu" and building tension with six knotty originals, including the dreamy ballad "Aigue Marine" (revived with greater radiance and polish in the 1979 version included in his invaluable out-of-print Radio France anthology, Live 1959/85), and "Nos Smoking," with its long exposition—a crazy quilt of quick tempo adjustments, fleeting references that mate a silent comedy riff with bop changes—that caroms into an extraordinarily fast blues passage. The album was released here by Liberty (now owned by EMI, so a Blue Note reissue is in order), and it should have become a classic—it's unlike anything else of the period—and established his stateside presence.

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