Strictly Solalian

Martial Solal Plays Everything All at Once

That didn't happen. Over the past 38 years, Solal has performed at festivals in Chicago and Monterey, but has rarely appeared in New York—the Vanguard gig represented his first visit in two decades and his first club date since he hit the Hickory House in 1963. His records are often hard to find here, though a few have crossed the Atlantic, including the 1983 Soul Note, Bluesine, and the current series on Dreyfus: In & Out with Johnny Griffin; the stunning Just Friends with Motian and Gary Peacock, an ideal introduction; and the new Dodecaband Plays Ellington, which shows off his arranging skills at the helm of a band he has led since 1980. Solal's writing, like his playing, never stands still. They are alike in other ways—the saxophone that skitters away from the theme might be a right-hand arpeggio; the high voicing of two soprano saxes might be a dissonant thumping in the treble and the trombone slur a bass-clef response. Occasional episodes are too intricate for their own good, but like they say about the weather in the plains, if you don't like it, wait eight bars. Solal shows no interest in aping Ellington. He is attracted to tunes we know so well that they can flit in and out of view (along with odd quotes, like "Reveille" in "Satin Doll"), always centered in his broad variational dramas: How timely are those impending storm clouds at the start of "Caravan," a 15-minute stream-of-consciousness desert song with who knows how many references to Solal's years in Africa.

Still, the Dodecaband lacks the romping joy and surprise of his trio, which, with drummer Bill Stewart and bassist François Mouton, gave the Vanguard a palpable lift. Sticking to standards, he played a vivacious shell game with the themes, sometimes keeping them hidden until well into the piece, yet filling out the changes so comprehensively that the melody, when it did appear, seemed his only natural conclusion. Solal's virtuosity is inescapable. I think the intellectual aspect that either draws your attention like steel filings to a magnet or leaves you on the outside is his devotion to good old theme-and-variations. Most jazz performances follow that dictate, but so often the improvisation abandons the theme that we tend to think of the result as head-and-solo, which is very different. Solal, like Monk or Rollins, is constantly playing with the piece under scrutiny. Obviously, you don't have to know the song to find his inventions spellbinding—his original pieces are just as compelling. But you do need to know "The Song Is You," "I Can't Get Started," and "Tea for Two" to keep up with the wit, caprice, mystery, and implacable sense of structure that informs every selection.

Even then, he will throw a wrench into the mix, usually to leaven the set, for example, a brief, faithful rendering of "La Vie en Rose," in which the real variations were assigned Mouton, who has a neat trick of rapidly sliding a fretting finger down a string while plucking melody notes that seem to sparkle like a percussive piano arpeggio; or opening a number with Stewart playing buoyant triplets as prelude to "Round Midnight" (the source of several Solal triumphs, all strikingly different), treated as a waltz—a fast waltz at that. "What Is This Thing Called Love" and its shadow melody "Hot House" became a world of fragments while sustaining, measure for measure, the logic of a theorem. Using chords as a grounding point, he is as free in his movements as free jazz can be. His influences were assimilated so long ago that you would be hard-pressed to hear a touch of Tatum or Powell or Garner or Monk. What you do hear of them, beautifully transmuted, is a lineage—the whimsy, spark, and bemused craft of the inspired quick-change artist. Everyone around me was smiling.

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