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.
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.