Martial Solal: French Modern

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Martial Solal
By Christopher Porter
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Martial Solal
By Christopher Porter

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“I thank Mr. Hitler,” says a droll Martial Solal, a French-Algerian Jew and France’s foremost jazz pianist. “Because of him I discover music. Without him, I wouldn’t be here—and neither would you.”

“Here” is Juan-Les-Pins, a tiny swath of Mediterranean beachfront in the south of France that hosts the historic Festival de Jazz d’Antibes Juan-Les-Pins. We’re in Hôtel Le Méridien, sitting in Solal’s seaside room. The vast blue panorama before us is the same one that inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald as he wrote Tender Is the Night, which was set in this once-sleepy fishing village that now lives up to the “constant carnival” appellation that the American expat writer bestowed upon it.

It’s a long way from Algiers, Algeria, where Solal was born Aug. 23, 1927, to French parents. His mother played piano and sang opera; his father was Jewish, which is why young Martial was kicked out of school in 1942. With Hitler’s Germany taking over France in 1940, the Vichy regime extended Nazi race law to French territories like Algeria. As with Jewish people in France, North African Jews were stripped of their citizenship and forbidden to work in certain professions or attend particular schools.

Solal had been playing piano since he was 7, so he took advantage of his newfound free time. He knew classical works by Debussy, Bach and Chopin, but Solal wanted to learn jazz, which he first encountered through the records of Fats Waller, Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson. So Solal hooked up with Lucky Starway, a French multi-instrumentalist living in Algiers, and studied with him until it was time to enter military service, where he found a new instructor. “I study with a very, very good teacher: myself,” he quips.

Solal continued to play while he was in the army, encountering the music of Erroll Garner, Art Tatum and Bud Powell. “I used to love Bud Powell,” Solal told Martin Williams and Dick Katz in a 1963 interview for Saturday Review, “and I think I still have many things from him. Maybe more than from anyone else except Tatum.”

You can hear Powell in the way Solal toys with time, his rhythmic melodies and his ability to twist familiar songs into almost unrecognizable shapes—until he brings them back to form in completely logical but wholly surprising ways.

Trumpeter Dave Douglas recorded last year’s Rue de Seine (CamJazz) with Solal, and he got a taste of the pianist’s ability to throw musical curveballs. “I was a little shocked playing standards with Martial. He’s fearless,” Douglas says.

Out of the 10 tracks on Rue de Seine, the duo cut four tunes from the jazz canon: “Have You Met Miss Jones,” “Body and Soul,” “Here’s That Rainy Day” and “All the Things You Are.”

“I’ve seen standards torn apart and rebuilt lots of different ways, but I didn’t expect it to be quite so stream-of-consciousness as it is in Martial’s playing. He can go out there!” Douglas says. “But he’s always playing the form in his own way, and at the slightest hint, and sometimes without it, he’s ready to extrapolate some incredibly sideways changes. He grew up playing standards, and I think that’s why he can mess with them so thoroughly—it’s calling on his deepest background in music.”

“When he starts a standard, usually he won’t tell us what it is,” says bassist Francois Moutin, who has played with Solal since 1989. Moutin’s twin brother, drummer Louis, joined the trio in 1993. “Usually we manage to know what he’s playing pretty soon, but sometimes he changes in the middle: He could stay on the same song but change the key; he could add a part to it like a pedal for a minute or an interlude; or sometimes he could even change songs in the middle of the song.”

In a March 1989 interview with Jerome Reese in Musician, Solal explained his take on approaching standards: “Freedom, for me, means being able to go as far as possible in a certain direction, established and prepared in advance. But I don’t like the idea of ‘anything goes.’ That’s why I play jazz standards, which give the audience something they can follow more easily and which will perhaps entertain them while having to put up with my, shall we say, busy style.”

“He has a very versatile approach to harmony and rhythm,” Moutin says. “But when he wants, he can really swing like nobody else I know.”

Jazz moderne, or any other sort, wasn’t a career option in Algeria. Combine that with a postwar work shortage in nonmusical labors, and Solal knew he had to make a break for France. He left the service and Algiers in 1950, moving to Paris—where he knew nobody. During his first few months in the City of Lights, Solal claims he felt so isolated that he didn’t speak to anybody. So he threw himself into improving his piano technique, setting up practice habits that remain with him to this day.

In the corner of Solal’s hotel room is a piano that he will warm up on for his concert this evening. But he won’t engage in one of his marathon practices, which means scales, octaves and arpeggios for hours on end—which he balances out by reading a novel as he pounds the keys. “I read some big books—sometimes a 600-page book,” Solal says, though he’s quick to clarify that it’s only during memorized exercises, not improvisations, that he can do dual things at once. “I was strictly practicing like a machine. Your mind can do double but not triple.”

Solal’s workload started to pick up as he felt more at home in Paris and started to meet other players. In 1953 he made his first sides as a leader, which can be heard on the first volume of the three-disc The Complete Vogue Recordings. The month before Solal cut his May 16, 1953 debut, he recorded with Django Reinhardt in the guitarist’s final session (“I played very bad on it,” Solal told Saturday Review).

As Solal settled into the Parisian scene, he frequently found himself to be the house pianist at the Left Banke’s famous Club Saint-Germain, backing visiting and expat Americans such as Lucky Thompson, Don Byas and Kenny Clarke. He sometimes recorded with them as well, and in 1957 Solal made an unlikely recording with New Orleans legend Sidney Bechet, who was a superstar in France. Their collaboration worked because of Bechet’s regard for Solal (it was at the saxophonist/clarinetist’s request that they teamed up) and because Solal “wanted to prove that any style of jazz could be played with any other,” he told Saturday Review. “It was very exciting to make this album. The session went so fast and easy for us, one tune after the other.”

Word spread of this Frenchman’s skills, and American legends would sometimes stop in to hear for themselves. The June 7, 1963, issue of Time reported, “Oscar Peterson went to France and gave up a tour of Provence to spend six smoky nights in the Club St. Germain listening to Solal. Duke Ellington heard him in Paris and immediately pronounced him a soul brother.”

This buzz continued to grow until, in 1963, George Wein invited Solal to play in the U.S. He was supposed to do two weeks at the Hickory House in New York City, topped off by an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival. But the response was so positive that the Hickory House gig lasted 10 weeks, and the Newport appearance spawned the album At Newport ’63 (RCA). The LP includes Bill Evans’ rhythm section at the time, drummer Paul Motian and bassist Teddy Kotick, documenting seven cuts—some recorded live and some studio tracks that were treated with applause “to make for natural home listening,” according to producer George Avakian’s liner notes.

The Newport album cover blared the headline “Europe’s Greatest Jazz Pianist!” and sported laudatory quotes from Dizzy Gillespie as well as from Solal’s soul brother No. 1, Ellington, who said: “Martial Solal has, in abundance, those indispensables of the musicians’ craft: sensitivity, creativity, and a prodigious technique. Most of all, he sparkles with refreshment—and for a jazz musician to sound refreshing in 1963 is no ordinary thing.”

Solal was happily caught up in the U.S. love-fest, and was ready to make a move to the country that birthed the music he loved.

“I was supposed to become an American citizen; everything was ready for it,” Solal says. “The first week I was in New York I was handled by Joe Glaser, who was the most famous agent. He took me by the hand, took me to Local 802 [the musicians’ union].”

Solal thought it would take six months for everything to get sorted out, but Glaser, a heavy character who managed Louis Armstrong, threw his weight around. “In six days I had everything, including a Social Security card, a Cabaret Card,” Solal recalls. “Mr. Glaser, believe me, he was a big man. It was so fast and so easy.

“He promised me many engagements,” the pianist continues. “And he says, ‘I have a good engagement for you in the London House in Chicago, where all the great pianists play’—Oscar Peterson—so I say, ‘OK.’ But when I came back to Paris, I never returned [to the U.S.], and he was very angry about that.

“I was not ready to move,” Solal says. “It was a difficult time in my private life. I was divorced, and I had a small boy. Everything was difficult, so I didn’t return.

“But the year after, in 1964, [Glaser] said, ‘I have another engagement for you’—he was less mad. He brought me to a club in San Francisco and the Monterey Jazz Festival. He had many offers for the future, too, but I was not ready to leave Paris. So, I forgot the U.S. for a certain number of years.”

And the U.S. all but forgot Martial Solal.

In 1960 Jean-Luc Godard made À Bout de Souffle (Breathless), one of the shining moments of French New Wave cinema. A young gangster named Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who fancies himself a Humphrey Bogart tough guy, kills a policeman and goes on the lamb with an innocent American girl, Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg). The plot was a simple homage to the gritty Hollywood movies that Godard adored, but the filmmaking was anything but Tinseltown. The flick reveled in then-new, now-standard postmodern techniques such as sudden jump cuts and extended scenes that reveled in copious dialogue.

This new sort of movie needed new music, but the sounds also had to be as self-referential and self-aware as the film they were accompanying. Solal was pegged for the job.

In the DVD commentary for Breathless, film critic David Sterritt makes multiple mentions of the self-conscious “Hollywood jazz” that appears on the screen, supposedly mimicking such wink-wink, nudge-nudge scenes as when the thug Poiccard admires and emulates a Bogart movie poster.

When I mention the commentary to Solal, the pianist doesn’t dispute Sterritt’s simplistic claim so much as undercut it: “Hollywood jazz can be good jazz.”

And good jazz it is, even if Godard never told Solal what he thought of the soundtrack, which, until recent years, received little recognition for its contribution to the landmark movie.

“It’s been 40-plus years since that film, and every week I do an interview about this film,” Solal says. “Now, people are starting to like the music. Takes time. They’re deaf. They have big problems,” he jokes, before admitting, “The movie was important without the music.”

Breathless can seem old-fashioned today because its once-unique filmic language has been absorbed by the mainstream. But in 1960, Solal says, “I received it as something very new, very unusual. I can’t believe it had so sad an end. I thought, ‘[Godard’s] crazy; nobody will accept this end.’ To me, it was completely new, extraordinary, but it was hard to believe it would become a classic.”

Since the two primary characters are so different—one a ruthless criminal, the other a feckless female student—Solal captured their personalities in music by using a very simple technique. “The way the two melodies are done, it’s interesting,” he says. “They are both five notes: one is coming from the low note to the high note; the other is exactly the contrary, using almost the same notes, with different, contrary figures, giving the opposite feeling. One makes you anxious; the other is romantic.”

Solal went on to compose numerous other movie soundtracks, including Orson Welles’ version of Franz Kafka’s The Trial and Jean Cocteau’s Testament d’Orphée (The Testament of Orpheus).

This written side of jazz holds special appeal for Solal, who is a self-taught composer and arranger (“I’m a very strict teacher toward myself.”). In Musician, Solal declared, “I persist in believing that the future of jazz lies in written music, in longer and longer written sequences, which does not exclude improvisation, of course. I also believe that once one has a very definite style, the only way to evolve is through composing.”

Dave Douglas says, “I don’t know of anyone who writes quite like [Solal]: stop-and-start tunes, almost completely free of key centers, incredibly intricate rhythmically, but with the looseness of swing. On the duo record with [Johnny Griffin], [In & Out (Dreyfus, 2000)], the execution sounded so nonchalant it made me wonder how the music was notated. I came to find out that it is almost all written out—but the way it’s written just swings, and it leaves open a sense of freedom in the interpretation.”

Solal is a great admirer of Thelonious Monk’s compositions, and his own arrangements take on a similar independent streak, rarely pausing for listeners’ ears to catch up before a new element is introduced or reduced. But as with Monk, there’s much humor in Solal’s super-intelligent work; he’s not racing around to confuse listeners so much as entertain them like the Marx Brothers.

On Dodecaband Plays Ellington (Dreyfus, 2000), for instance, Solal takes music associated with Duke—“Satin Doll,” “Caravan,” etc.—and puts it through his big band’s ringer to create dense, tricky takes on overly familiar compositions. In the liner notes, Solal writes, “The Dodecaband’s somewhat slighter lineup allows, at times, more complex musical treatments. The choice of Ellington, beyond my own interest in his music, was predicated by my desire to show, by means of well-known pieces, that the job of the arranger is actually a compositional task.”

Despite his skills at painting with the colors of a big band, a pianist of Solal’s skill is best heard, in solo, duo and, especially, trio formats.

“That record Martial made in Newport with Paul Motian is smoking!” says Douglas.

Motian agrees, but it took four decades for the drummer to let Solal know. When they were recording At Newport ’63, the pianist recalls, “Paul didn’t say nothing. I was playing with Teddy Kotick, the bass player, and he was always enthusiastic. But Paul was always like this [Solal makes a long face]. I don’t know if he likes [my] music or not. But 40 years later he said, ‘I just listened to the record,’ because it was just reissued, ‘and it’s terrific. I bought five copies.’”

Solal and Motian have made other records together, including 1997’s Just Friends (Dreyfus) with bassist Gary Peacock, and the drummer was responsible for urging the Village Vanguard to invite the pianist back to the U.S. for his first high-profile performance in many years.

Unfortunately, his booking coincided with the week of 9/11.

“It was an unbelievable thing,” Solal says of his week of gigs in New York City after the tragedy. “The first couple of days there was almost nobody there. But then there was a [write-up] in the New York Times, so from this to the end of the week, we packed the house.” (The results can be heard on Solal’s 2003 Blue Note CD, NY1: Live at the Village Vanguard, featuring Moutin on bass and Bill Stewart on drums.)

In 2002 and 2003 Solal made follow-up trips to the U.S., playing high-profile concerts in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City. Solal was supposed to make a return trip to the U.S. and play the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in 2005, but he cancelled. “I did the same thing I did 40 years ago—I never went,” he says with a laugh.

“He’s never liked traveling that much,” Moutin says. “I keep insisting he come over, but I don’t want to be too heavy.”

Still, American ears can hear Solal more easily than ever before. Dreyfus has distributed several of his recent CDs in the U.S., and last year CamJazz reissued two fantastic records, European Episode and Impressive Rome, that Solal made with Lee Konitz in 1968.

Moutin calls Solal “one of the masters of jazz on the planet.” Anyone who hears Solal would agree, but that’s the rub: He’s really only known in continental Europe, and specifically in France, where his stature is akin to that of Enrico Rava’s in Italy. “Django Reinhardt was a very influential musician in France, and was for a long time, but more in the Gypsy community,” Moutin says. “He still is a huge influence on French jazz musicians, but I think over the years Martial has become the most influential jazz master in France.

“Martial’s an extremely kind and very open-minded person,” Moutin continues. “His attitude toward young musicians in France is one of the most generous I know. He’s really around them, and listening to everybody who’s coming up, and encouraging musicians coming up.” The pianist even helped create the Martial Solal International Jazz Piano Competition to help showcase new talent.

“He approaches his 80th year, but he has the mind of somebody extremely young,” Moutin says. “He has the experience of somebody that age, but he stretches on his instrument and in the music as if he was 25 or 30. He’s really amazing.

“He has a lot of humor, too—a lot of dry humor.”

As our interview wraps up, Solal apologizes for his English—which is perfectly fine—and for asking me to repeat my questions. “It’s not that I don’t understand you; it’s the noise of this,” he says, pointing to the air conditioner. “Since 20 years I’ve had a problem with my ears, so when I hear two sounds together, it’s difficult. That’s why I only play one note at the end of my concerts; no more chords.”

Originally published in January/February 2007

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