THE DOZENS: A HALF CENTURY OF MARTIAL SOLAL by Thierry Quénum

A few years ago, on the stage of a big French jazz festival, veteran pianist Martial Solal introduced the tune he was about to play with his trio in the following manner: The next tune will be Solar by Miles Davis. Then he walked a couple of steps to the piano . . . then some more back to the microphone and added: This song was formerly called Solal but some jealous pianists asked that the name be changed. Yes, he could and yes, he dared!

Thats Martial Solal. Hes worked so hard on the piano that he knows few competitors can beat him on the technical grounds, yet hes shy and hides his shyness behind a dry humor that can be misunderstood at times. The complexity of his personal and musical universe shouldnt surprise when you know hes a huge fan of the hilarious and cruel world of Tex Avery, to whom he wrote a musical homage.



                  Martial Solal, by Jos L. Knaepen


Solal is one of the oldest living legend of the piano, yet he cant stand being bored, like a child who endlessly explores the eighty-eight keys of his main toy: the grand piano. Hes embraced writing film scores and contemporary classical music, but he likes nothing better that improvisation without a safety net. Following him over half a century of his carrier means undertaking a journey from solo to big band records, through two continents and several countries.

No wonder: Solal was born in Algiers, when Algeria was still part of France. At the time, becoming a jazz pianist meant moving, at least to the European side of the Mediterranean Sea. Solal never stopped moving and evolving since he first came to Paris in 1950. From then on, the young unknown boy whod fallen in love with jazz on the radio would rise to glory while spending his life on a piano stool, as the title of his recently published autobiography goes.

Here are twelve essential Martial Solal tracks, covering a half-century of music-making, in chronological order.


Sidney Bechet & Martial Solal: All The Things You Are

Track

All The Things You Are

Artist

Sidney Bechet (soprano sax) and Martial Solal (piano)

CD

Sidney Bechet-Martial Solal Quartet featuring Kenny Clarke (BMG 74321881122)

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Musicians:

Sidney Bechet (soprano sax), Martial Solal (piano), Kenny Clarke (drums),

Pierre Michelot (bass)

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Composed by Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein III

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Recorded: Paris, June 17, 1957

Albumcoversidneybechet-martialsolal-kennyclarke

Rating: 85/100 (learn more)

It must have seemed strange, in the late stages of a "war" between jazz traditionalists and supporters of the bop revolution, to pair a New Orleans-born veteran and an up-and-coming young virtuoso who was soon to become one of Europe's leading modern pianists. Plus a rhythm team that Martial Solal more than Sidney Bechet was familiar with, and which six months later would also support Miles Davis on the famed soundtrack of Ascenseur pour l'chafaud (1958; released in the USA as Elevator to the Gallows). But Bechet was such an icon in his adopted homeland of France that he could afford to do anything and was revered by every musician. Here he basically stays very close to the melody, with his huge sound and plentiful vibrato, and lets Solal toy around with the harmonies in a playful, witty way that the pianist even uses when he comps behind his unwavering elder. Not much of an encounter, indeed, but still a very interesting example of musical co-tenancy.

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


Martial Solal: Suite pour une frise

Track

Suite pour une frise

Artist

Martial Solal (piano)

CD

At Newport '63 (RCA-Victor)

Musicians:

Martial Solal (piano), Teddy Kotick (bass), Paul Motian (drums).

Composed by Martial Solal

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Recorded: New York, July 15, 1963

Albumcovermartialsolal-atnewport63

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Martial Solal had already recorded this "suite" the year before with his French trio, but to present this 11-minute piece to the Newport audience with sidemen who were unfamiliar with his playing was a bold gesture. In fact, though this music was actually played live on stage, this track, like all others on the album, was taped a few days later in a New York studio, with overdubbed applause. All the same, Motian and Kotick, who had to learn the themes by heart, must be praised for a great job. Solal hardly auditioned this former Bill Evans rhythm team, which was proposed to him on his arrival in the USA, where he had never before performed. But the French pianist was so familiar with American musicians either living in Paris or passing through that he felt totally at ease with pickup American sidemen. Solal's music may have seemed strange to them and to the audience, since virtually nobody stateside played like him back then. But in 1963 his main influences were still American, and it's more his synthesis of styles from Tatum to Phineas Newborn through Bud Powell, and the form of this lengthy tune with constantly shifting tempos, that may have surprised. Actually, the virtuosity and modernity of Solal's playing might leave some listeners dumbfounded even today.

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


Martial Solal & Lee Konitz: Stella by Starlight

Track

Stella by Starlight

Artist

Martial Solal (piano) and Lee Konitz (alto sax)

CD

European Episode / Impressive Rome (CamJazz)

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Musicians:

Martial Solal (piano), Lee Konitz (alto sax).

Composed by Victor Young & Ned Washington

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Recorded: Rome, Italy, October 12, 1968

Albumcoverleekonitz-martialsolal-europeanepisode-impressiverome

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

This track is a historical event: it was recorded during the first meeting between Solal and Konitz. It's also the only duet taped that afternoon, and the first of a long series the two musicians would subsequently play together onstage or in the studio. Indeed, as soon as they met, Solal and Konitz were like brothers, and still are more than 40 years later. This may seem strange, given the difference in their styles: Konitz's laconic, linear phrasing and rather thin sound as opposed to Solal's extrovert, baroque approach to the keyboard and his tendency to change tempo without notice. In fact their association works marvelously, as they drag each other onto one another's playground in a fascinating cat-&-mouse game. This playground is often founded, as here, on the standards they both love. To such familiar patterns they in turn bring the element of surprise. Indeed, the main common ground between Solal and Konitz may be that they hate to repeat themselves. Indeed, surprising themselves and each other is the engine that powers this unlikely but immensely likable duo.

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


Martial Solal: Accalmie

Track

Accalmie

Artist

Martial Solal (piano)

CD

Sans Tambour ni Trompette (RCA)

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Musicians:

Martial Solal (piano),

Gilbert Rovere, Jean-Franois Jenny-Clark (basses)

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Composed by Martial Solal

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Recorded: Paris, October 1970

Albumcovermartialsolal-sanstambournitrompette

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

You can always count on Martial Solal for a pun. Many of his titles play on words that can't be translated from French into any other language. This album's title, for example, has to do with the unusual type of trio that Solal chose: piano and two basses. Literally in French the title means "without drum or trumpet." But it also means "unobtrusively, without any fuss," exactly the sort of double-entendre that Solal likes.

How about the music? Much less complicated than the wordplay may suggest. First it's a quiet piece, as it's title says ("lull," in English), and the gentle walking of the two basses while the piano plays simple chords in the beginning establishes the general atmosphere. Tempo changes, which Solal often favors, are rare here, going from slow to medium fast with an emphasis on melody that is unusual for the pianist. Obviously the context of two low and soft instruments helps him find other grounds to explore. Solal chose two basses in the first place because his drummer, then a substitute, had failed him for a trio concert. Thus pushed in new directions, Solal assembled a brand new repertoire for this group. But the trio sounded too new at the time in France, and Solal had to disband it after having recorded what he still considers one of his best discs.

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


Martial Solal: Cherokee

Track

Cherokee

Artist

Martial Solal (piano)

CD

Suite for Trio (UMVD)

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Musicians:

Martial Solal (piano), Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (bass), Daniel Humair (drums).

Composed by Ray Noble

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Recorded: Villingen, Germany, February 27-28, 1978

Albumcovermartialsolal-suitefortrio

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

This truly is a reunion of European virtuosos. Solal, the French pianist, Niels-Henning rsted-Pedersen, the late Danish bassist (with whom Solal had recorded a duet for the same German label two years before) and Daniel Humair, the Swiss drummer (who had been living in Paris for quite some time and by then was more or less Solal's regular drummer). Together they tackle the Ray Noble standard in a very "Solalian" way, which means that you'd better have the original melody and chord sequence well memorized if you want to recognize it. But even if you don't, you should have just as much fun if you like breakneck tempos, speedy turns and unannounced twists as much as these musicians do. NHP opens with a swift 1-minute solo intro, then is joined by Humair for another minute before the leader joins in. Almost as soon as Solal has entered with a couple of fast arpeggios, the rhythm team leaves him on his own. He changes pace to a quiet ballad before switching again to a speedy tempo. Then his right hand introduces original melodic bits, a short quotation of "Take the 'A' Train" and evenbelieve it or nota reworking of the Ray Noble melody that most listeners will have a hard time recognizing at this tempo and with these alterations. But if you never hear the original melody, don't be disappointed: Solal shies away from clichs (even his own) and never has more fun than when toying around with familiar chords or a timeless melody until he's made it totally his own. Here, obviously, he found two playmates totally attuned to his twist of mind.

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


Martial Solal & Stphane Grappelli: Nuages

Track

Nuages

Artist

Martial Solal (piano) and Stéphane Grappelli (violin)

CD

Happy Reunion (Owl)

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Musicians:

Martial Solal (piano), Stéphane Grappelli (violin).

Composed by Django Reinhardt

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Recorded: Paris, February 17-18, 1980

Albumcovermartialsolal-stephanegrappelli-happyreunion

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Both are internationally known historical figures of French jazz. Each played with Django Reinhardt: Grappelli on their famed prewar recordings, Solal on Django's final 1953 studio session (where the Gypsy genius used an electric guitar). But they had never played together on record. What was to be expected from such a late meeting, taking place more than a quarter of a century after Django's death? The best! And it's obvious from the piano intro on. Solal wrote a dreamy impressionistic prelude to one of Django's most famous tunes, and when the violin enters on the theme itself, the piano alternates between this harmonic atmosphere, served by a beautiful touch, and a more rhythmic approach. Grappelli basically remains himself, halfway between a tradition that he comes from and a taste for innovation that has always been present in his improvisations and choice of partners. Solal also remains himself, playing around both the violin and the theme with respect towards each. He obviously has ventured farther from tradition than his elder, but his style is deeply rooted and can be highly melodic, as this track beautifully demonstrates.

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


Martial Solal: A Night in Tunisia

Track

A Night In Tunisia

Artist

Martial Solal (piano)

CD

Martial Solal improvise pour France Musique (JMS)

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Musicians:

Martial Solal (piano).

Composed by Dizzy Gillespie

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Recorded: Paris, September 1993-June 1994

Albumcovermartialsolal-improvisepourfrancemusique

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

It's utterly impossible to predict how Martial Solal will play the most familiar standards. He's likely to start at the end, the middle, the second half of the beginning, put it upside down or play different sections with each hand. The man is totally unpredictable. He knows it, likes it, and so do we. From September 1993 to June 1994, France Musique, one of the French state radio channels, invited Solal to improvise every Sunday afternoon in one of their studios, in front of an audience, and these concerts were broadcast live and recorded. On this Dizzy Gillespie classic, Solal has all the fun he can get: heavily rhythmic chord clusters to begin, bits of melody among flurries of arpeggios, a true demonstration of piano pyrotechnics that would be overwhelming if the lightness of touch and the constant rhythm changes didn't continually keep our attention sharp. Then the theme becomes increasingly clear, the left hand maintaining a stride- like comping as the right frolics randomly. And we slowly realize that Solal not only does whatever he wants with whatever he wants, but has given us a lesson in jazz history by bringing the Gillespie theme backward to the prewar era, and forward to himself.

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


Martial Solal: Triangle

Track

Triangle

Artist

Martial Solal (piano)

CD

Triangle (JMS)

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Musicians:

Martial Solal (piano), Marc Johnson (bass), Peter Erskine (drums).

Composed by Martial Solal

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Recorded: Paris, May 1995

Albumcovermartialsolal-triangle

Rating: 88/100 (learn more)

When Martial Solal looks for American musicians as partners for a trio session, he goes for the best: Teddy Kotick and Paul Motian in 1963 at Newport, Johnson and Erskine here, Gary Peacock and Motian again in 1997 in Paris. Of course the virtuoso pianist's music is difficult to play and requires mature sidemen and consummate instrumental technicians. But everyone knows that a summit meeting can never guarantee an optimal musical result. On this track, which Solal penned specially for this record, the relationship between the three masters is good, but there's a slight sense of stiffness that prevents the music from flowing effortlessly. The song is interestingly melodic, with a somewhat Ellingtonian feel at times. Solal is in a comparatively discreet mood, refraining from his frequent virtuoso streaks. Johnson and Erskine have short solo spots, and are as musical as ever as accompanists. But one can't help thinking that if this studio session had been recorded after a couple of live dates, the empathy between the players and the intensity of the music would have benefited. A record producer's ideas are not always best.

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


Martial Solal & Johnny Griffin: You Stepped Out of A Dream

Track

You Stepped Out of A Dream

Artist

Martial Solal (piano) and Johnny Griffin (tenor sax)

CD

In & Out (Dreyfus Jazz FDM 36610-2)

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Musicians:

Martial Solal (piano), Johnny Griffin (tenor sax).

Composed by Nacio Herb Brown & Gus Kahn

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Recorded: Paris, June 29-July 1, 1999

Albumcovermartialsolal-johnnygriffin-inandout

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Those two veterans, despite both living in France and being about the best you can get on their respective instruments, had never recorded together before this session. In fact, Solal is not really the kind of pianist that bop saxophonists look for now, nor does he look for them, although he was a mainstay for U.S. horn players stopping in Paris during the 1950s. Anyway, this encounter is just a miracle. Griffin shows his mellow side rather than his usual "little giant" raunchy routine, and his melodic invention is huge. Solal produces constant fireworks of rhythmic and harmonic surprises. But his aim is good music and contrast with his partner, not to show off, and their version of this standard can easily compete with the best.

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


Martial Solal: Zag Zig

Track

Zag Zig

Artist

Martial Solal (piano)

CD

NY-1/Live at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note)

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Musicians:

Martial Solal (piano), Franois Moutin (bass), Bill Stewart (drums).

Composed by Claudia Solal

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Recorded: Village Vanguard, New York September 21-23, 2001

Albumcovermsolalny1

Rating: 85/100 (learn more)

Some have said that Solal is one of the most illustrious followers of Art Tatum, as far as sheer virtuosity is concerned. During this concert, recorded a couple of days after 09/11/2001, the great French pianist seems to be more interested in exploring various moods than in showing muscles. With the help of one of his regular bass players and an excellent drummer hes less familiar with, Solal first creates a rubato rhythmic and harmonic climate, then the melody and a regular beat appear with a rather dark atmosphere, and finally everything becomes joyous and swift, with a light bouncing melody. A metaphor of the soothing Solal wanted to bring to an audience that had just experienced horror?

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


Martial Solal: Cortancyl

Track

Cortancyl

Group

Newdecaband

CD

Exposition sans tableau (Nocturne)

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Musicians:

Martial Solal (piano), Claudia Solal (vocals),

Claude Egea, Eric Le Lann (trumpets), Denis Leloup, Marc Roger (trombones), Lionel Surin (French horn), Franois Thuillier (tuba), Jean-Philippe Morel (electric bass), Thomas Grimmonprez (drums, percussion)

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Composed by Martial Solal

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Recorded: Paris, December 26-29, 2005

Albumcovermartialsolal-expositionsanstableau

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Martial Solal loves writing for large ensembles and has done so as often as he could, which is not very often, at least on record. He led a big band in the early '80s, then his "Dodecaband" in the late '90s and early 2000, and was enticed to start again with a "Newdecaband" by the sound of his daughter Claudia's voice, which he decided to use instead of a sax section. Well, that's not the only difference between the Newdecaband and a traditional jazz orchestra, but isn't "difference" more or less Solal's middle name?

This track is actually a small piano concerto. Solal starts alone at a rather slow pace, then the brass blow a couple of riffs before the voice joins in and, along with the brass, sings intricate melody lines with drum punctuations. A trio passage segues, on the same melody that the brass and voice had played, and the rest follows more or less the same pattern of piano and rhythm alternating with voice and brass. It may all seem a bit formaland it actually is in the beginningbut the overall sound is gorgeous and very original. Besides, the electric bass gives a punchy yet mellow feel to the whole thing, and the piano part is some high-level stuff: sound, touch, phrasing Solal has often composed and played for contemporary music, and it shows in his jazz orchestral writing. But how can European musicians refrain from copying the American tradition if they don't search for their own ways? And, as on this track, find interesting paths.

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


Martial Solal: Corcovado

Track

Corcovado

Artist

Martial Solal (piano)

CD

I Can't Give You Anything But Love: Live at the Village Vanguard (CamJazz)

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Musicians:

Martial Solal (piano).

Composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim

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Recorded: live at the Village Vanguard, New York, October 12, 2007

Albumcovermartialsolal-liveatthevillagevanguard

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

When Martial Solal played the Vanguard alone in 2007, he was the second pianist ever, after Fred Hersch, to be granted such a privilege. It's definitely an honor, especially for a European musician. But after more than a half century of playing and recording all over the world with an international reputation, it can't be considered undue. The press clips say that the Vanguard was packed every night, and the reviews were excellent. The record is, anyway, and on this track Solal plays a Brazilian standard he'd never recorded before, as far as I know. To him, all music is just music, so he won't really care if it's Brazilian or Norwegian; it's basically food for his brain and fingers.

He starts, as often, by getting at the theme from a side angle, with one hand, then two in unison. Next he exposes the theme with more and more rhythmic, harmonic and melodic alterations until hitting a brief stride passage followed by virtuoso scales. Here you may fear the worst, but the theme comes back and undergoes more metamorphoses, including a short coverage in the very low register that is surprisingly musical. And just when you are beginning to get used to Solal's way of dealing with a standard, suddenly it's over. Applause, laughs, speechless signs of surprise (one supposes) That's about the diversity of reaction that Solal expects from a listening audience, and one wishes that all the musicians who played the Vanguard before him had found such a rapt and respectful reception.

Reviewer: Thierry Quénum


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