Saturday, June 14, 2014

Martial Solal: The Early Years

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Martial Solal has always gone his own way, along a straight and rising path which compels respect: some forty years without ever deviating from the goal to be achieved.”
- Philippe Baudoin, Jazz writer and critic

“The lyricism, the reassuring feeling that things were on the right path, the audacious attitude of a musician who plumbed right to the depths of himself and made music from Jazz and Jazz from music. It was from Martial that I secretly went to the Club Ringside each night to draw these things from.”
- Bobby Jaspar, tenor saxophonist, writing in the magazine, Jazz Hot, in 1955

“What first attracted me to Solal's music were dismissals of it as 'not jazz'. It may appear too easy a paradox, yet almost the best advice that one can offer to people who want to find out about jazz is to attend to those whose work is supposedly 'not jazz'. Besides their music often being of high quality in itself, it may offer a rethinking of jazz essentials and even, in a few cases, indicate a new direction for the art.”
- Max Harrison, Jazz writer and critic, October, 1967, Jazz Monthly

As Philippe Baudoin explains in his CD sleeve notes to The Complete Vogue Recordings of Martial Solal: 3 Volumes [74321409322; 74321409332; 74321606372]:

“Martial Solal has always gone his own way, along a straight and rising path which compels respect: some forty years [now fifty, since this writing] without ever deviating from the goal to be achieved. The Solal of today is contained in embryo on most of the tracks on these CDs. And when asked what he feels when he listens to these early discs, Martial Solal fires off a typically pithy comment: ‘I get the impressions that I’m listening to one of my pupils.’ Does he know what a magnificent compliment he is paying them?”

“Idiosyncratic,” “ individualistic,”  “independent” - all are words often used in association with pianist Martial Solal’s approach to Jazz.

Jazz musicians and Jazz fans alike have been making these comments about Martial style dating back to his first appearances at Club St. Germain and the Ringside in the mid 1950’s when as part of the house rhythm section he accompanied Americans passing through Paris including J.J. Johnson, Clifford Brown, Don Byas, Bob Brookmeyer and Lucky Thompson, among many others.

Of the Vogue sessions which present Martial in solo, trio, quartet, sextet and big band sessions, Mr. Baudoin went on to say:

“One senses in him, particularly since 1954, a desire to expand the language of piano and harmonics, to use all the registers of the instrument to the full, a desire not to neglect its percussive possibilities, to separate the two hands to the maximum (contrapuntally) or, on the contrary, to bring them together as is linked and in parallel movement during forward passages.

He also maintains a constant vigil to ensure that he never allows himself to succumb for the easy, to the temptation of the pretty, to the warbling of the keyboard player or to the showing off of the bravura virtuoso.

Such musical discipline (rare in Jazz) demands a mastery of technique of a very high order, which must be maintained unceasingly if its aspirations are to be met.”

Writing in the October, 1967 Jazz Monthly, I found the following observation by Max Harrison to be similar to my reactions to Solal:

“What first attracted me to Solal's music were dismissals of it as 'not jazz'. It may appear too easy a paradox, yet almost the best advice that one can offer to people who want to find out about jazz is to attend to those whose work is supposedly 'not jazz'. Besides their music often being of high quality in itself, it may offer a rethinking of jazz essentials and even, in a few cases, indicate a new direction for the art.

Thus each considerable stylistic change in Duke Ellington's output was greeted by his followers as a betrayal of what had gone before, as a subsidence into 'not jazz'. But, as Edmund Wilson says, "It is likely to be one of the signs of the career of a great artist that each of his successive works should prove for his admirers as well as for his critics not at all what they had been expecting, and cause them to raise cries of falling-off.”. Later musicians were able to go one better than Ellington, and the work of Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman among others was proclaimed as 'not jazz' almost from the moment they appeared.

Sure enough, Solal proved to be among the best jazz pianists. Like Django Reinhardt, the guitarist, he is not merely outstanding among European players but within the whole context of the music. This is no place for a biography, yet it should be noted that Solal was born at Algiers in 1927, made his first attempts at jazz during 1940, and reached Paris in 1950. The first record the present writer encountered was Kenny Clarke plays Andre Hodeir, on which musical interest is largely divided between the scores and Solal's contributions. He is prominently featured and takes long, strikingly imaginative solos, Bemsha swing containing one of the best. However, Solal is a natural jazz musician and besides fitting into the sophisticated compositional climate of Hodeir's writing he could, in 1957, take a perceptive and sympathetic role in some recordings with Sidney Bechet. Impressive is the way Solal is able to simplify his harmony to accommodate the older man yet still produce ingenuities like the reharmonisations of that repeated-note figure in It don't mean a thing.

Solal has a very fine keyboard technique —that is, skill in employing his instrument, which is not the same thing as facility, which is what all too many pianists have. Solal possesses that kind of agility, too, as it happens, but he uses it instead of being used by it. …

Not surprisingly, a lot of his music - and some of that on Solal’s earlier discs - seems fragmentary at first, but, as with Art Tatum, continued listening reveals an underlying unity.”

Aside from his early Vogue recordings, my other exposure to Martial’s extraordinary gifts as a Jazz pianist came from two LP’s he recorded for US labels: Martial Solal [subtitled “The Debut of Europe’s Greatest Jazz Pianist”] on Capitol [T-10261] and Martial Solal at Newport ‘63 [subtitled “First American Recording by Europe’s Greatest Jazz Pianist!”] RCA Victor [LSP-2777].

The Capitol LP combines five trio tracks on which Martial is joined by bassist Guy Pedersen and drummer Daniel Humair with five tracks on which he plays solo piano.

The uncredited liner notes to the album state that:

“PARIS JAZZ BUFFS saw a new star rise above the southern horizon in 1950 when (still in his early twenties) Martial Solal left his native Algiers to try his luck in the French capital.

Success wasn't easy; for three months, Paris, a frequent stopping-place for American jazz greats, didn't give this son of France a chance. Then he landed a spot with a variety show and soon was doing solo and combo work in Left Bank cabarets. For several years he was a regular at the Club St.-Germain; now he is also frequently in the public's eye and ear with his credits for movie and television scores. From the beginning of his career on the continent Solal's marks of individuality were clear: clean, two-handed technique comparable to legit pianism but not derived from it; subtlety and richness of color effects in the best French impressionist vein; and a free-wheeling compositional style that looks toward larger forms and sparks his improvisations on standards.

Working with visiting Americans (including J. J. Johnson, Kenny Clarke and Don Byas) he learned from them and they from him; now his growing reputation throughout Europe demands spreading the good word stateside with these, the first recordings under his own banner released in America.”

Martial Solal at Newport ‘63 was produced by George Avakian who, after a long tenure with Columbia Records, moved to RCA Victor. George made these comments about Martial in the liner notes that he wrote for this recording:

“Years and years after he has already made it in other segments of the American press, a musician in the world of Jazz begins to hope that someday he’ll break into Time magazine. But pianist Martial Solal, an Algerian-born Frenchman who plays more like and American than perhaps any other foreigner in the history of this highly American music, hit Time within two weeks of his arrival in New York.

The accolade was well-deserved. Solal is known by every American Jazzman who has ever worked in Europe; he has played with the best, and has earned their warm respect for his originality and across-the-board musicianship. But the American Jazz public had hardly heard of this extraordinary pianist, characterized by Time as an ‘amazingly adept virtuoso’ who ‘pursues unconventional harmonic flights’ and whose ‘imagination is rich to the point of bursting.’ …

Hearing Martial Solal is a rewarding experience whether one chooses to analyze his work, or just enjoy it passively. His most obvious characteristic is a gift for musical invention; he puts all his resources to the creation of melodic variations which are easy on the ears, but are nonetheless brilliantly imaginative, original, and so tastefully understated that on first hearing one fails to realize the full value of what he has offered.

For instance, his technique is one of the most prodigious in Jazz, yet it is never exploited for its own sake, but only in the service of completely musical ideas.

Solal has a rare sense of sonority; … he evokes sounds and emotions which are richer than one expects from so limited a palette as the piano.

As an improviser, he develops his variations in a long-lined shape which retains elements of the original melody to a degree that is often forgotten in this day of stating a theme at the beginning and ending of a piece, with no reference to it in between.

Thematic development and variation and changes of tempo are all well-integrated in his balanced work, which leaves plenty of room for improvisation but none for boredom.”

What impressed me most when I heard his early recordings was Martial’s utmost confidence, enthusiasm and individuality.

I agree with Richard Cook and Brian Morton when they note in their Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.: “We do not exaggerate nor is it possible to overestimate the sheer artistry of Solal’s work. He has an astonishing gift for complex voicings, There can be few better straight-ahead piano improvisors anywhere in the world.He is also a remarkable composer, creating complex themes out of simple intervals and brief melodic lines.”

This latter gift of making memorable tunes out of basic riffs and phrases is on exhibition in the following video which features his original composition Middle Jazz from his “debut”album on Capitol with Guy Pedersen on bass and his long-time associate, Daniel Humair, on drums.

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