The Wizard from Algiers


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.

Here, in tandem with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian—Bill Evans’s acclaimed trio mates of 1965—Solal practices the rare art of pure freedom in form. On such standards as “Just Friends,” “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” and “You Stepped Out of a Dream,” and his own tunes, Solal rewrites song through disjunctive rhythm. His airborne lines slip free of all shackles, yet their spontaneous movement only makes sense in the context of the song’s formal barriers. It’s as if Solal longs for the pleasures of a cage, just so he can brazenly slip in and out of its bars. But he can also match Peacock and Motian at their own game, making living entities out of the barest of forms; for Solal, free jazz becomes just one more mountain to effortlessly scale. Like everything else he does, he pulls it off without a trace of glibness or virtuosic superficiality.

Just Friends should be snatched up before it, too, vanishes. In the good old days, a jazz pianist often became a legend through the sheer lack of recordings he or she produced: Take the cases of Herbie Nichols, Peck Kelly, and “the legendary” Hassan. In the strange commercial world in which we live, a major figure like Solal can have scores of recordings yet, due to poor distribution, still remain a blip on the radar in the U.S. Then again, if aspiring young pianists heard a good dose of Solal at his best, it might well send them in search of another line of work.