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Martial Solal: NY-1: Live at the Village Vanguard

One of the more interesting side steps in the barkering for new European jazz is the avoidance of any mention of the continent’s first-generation modernists. The reason is simple, if twofold: Placing the new kids on the block within a decades-long continuum deflates their stock as originals; and they will much more often than not come up on the short end of head-to-head comparisons with the likes of Martial Solal. Now in his late 70s, the French pianist is one of the last remaining vestiges of Paris’ postwar jazz glory days. Yet Solal has never simply recycled what he learned on the bandstand from Don Byas, Kenny Clarke and others in the early to mid-’50s. Like Lee Konitz, with whom he has periodically worked since the late ’60s, Solal conveys an off-handed sense of adventure in his playing. However, there is a rigor to Solal’s playing that is his own, borne of not just the cultural mix of jazz and Paris, but of considerable experience in contemporary music and film music, as well. Subsequently, Martial Solal is one of the most compelling pianists of any nationality or generation currently on the jazz scene, a stone-cold fact confirmed by NY-1.

Too much can be made that these recordings were made at the shrinelike Village Vanguard just days after 9/11. In seeking shelter from the storm, annotator David Lewis, who had never encountered Solal before these gigs, celebrates the balmlike qualities of Solal’s music at the expense of its challenges. Solal epitomizes French sensibilities’ stubborn resistance to facile reduction. Even in essaying a warhorse like “What Is This Thing Called Love?” Solal creates a truly mercurial atmosphere, where his vantage on the material shifts unpredictably, both in terms of timing and direction. This is greatly aided by his vast vocabulary and daring usage, which produces close encounters between such seemingly polar opposites as Paul Bley-ish abstraction and Erroll Garner-esque sweep. In this regard, critic Stephane Olivier’s recent evocation of Montaigne in regards to another French pianist, Beno¡t Delbecq, applies here, as well: Solal depicts the passing.

These qualities play out much differently in Solal’s own compositions, which are mistakenly attributed on NY-1 to his daughter, Claudia, who did co-pen the title track with Solal. Were it not for the wealth of interpretative choices they afford bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Bill Stewart, Solal compositions could be considered borderline didactic, given their insistent edge. Occasionally, the meshing of a sleek Bud Powell-like linear drive and abrupt staccato phrases bears a slight resemblance to Muhal Richard Abrams’ lexicon; but there are no obvious influences shaping Solal’s compositional voice. Still, within the exceptionally specific parameters of compositions like “Suspect Rhythm,” Solal finds oasislike spaces where he dips deep into his mid-century origins.

Throughout this excellent album, Solal exudes an autonomous European identity, one articulated before American mass culture swept Europe. Euro-jazz ideologues make a grave error by not claiming musicians such as Solal as their elders; instead, they rail against an American art form that is not imperial but universal. It is not enough to simply react against something to make a lasting impact in jazz: Stating an aesthetic credo is required. That’s what Solal has done for decades, and it shows on NY-1.

Originally Published