© -Steven 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
“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.
Writing in the sleeve notes to Vogue sessions from this period 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.”
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 re-harmonisations 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.”
After his long tenure with Columbia Records, George Avakian moved to RCA Victor and made these comments about Martial in the liner notes that he wrote for Martial Solal at Newport ‘63 which he produced for that label.
“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 improvisers anywhere in the world. He is also a remarkable composer, creating complex themes out of simple intervals and brief melodic lines.”
All of this, by way of background, brings me to the recent Fresh Sound CD Martial Solal Solo Piano: Unreleased 1966 Los Angeles Sessions [FSR CD 943]. It contains a dazzling array of Martial’s pianism from his first decade in the music that agonizingly has not been commercially available for over half century!
Jordi Pujol, the owner/operator of Fresh Sound and producer of the disc, explains how it all came about in the following insert notes to the CD:
“In June 1966, invited by the shrewd American producer and author Ross Russell, Martial Solal traveled to Los Angeles, where he recorded these forgotten and unreleased solo piano sessions. Russell was a well-known personality in the jazz scene after he launched the legendary Dial Records in 1946 just to record Charlie Parker while the young bebop altoist lived in the city. Russell's label released some of Parker's best works, and for two years he was also his personal manager. It was his obsession and admiration for his genius, that it induced him to write the moving biography "Bird Lives!," published in 1973.
After Russell shut Dial down in 1949, he spent several years away from the music scene, but he never quite abandoned his love for jazz, and so in 1966 he decided to return to the record business. He organized a series of recordings with the goal to start a new label—strangely enough, the news went totally unnoticed by jazz magazines at the time.
For this new venture, Russell rented Whitney Studio in Glendale—which had a wonderful Steinway—and produced his first album in March, a Joe Albany trio session (first released on FSR-317). Martial Solal's recordings took place a few months later, in June 19,20 and 21, and resulted in three solo piano albums. Unfortunately Russell's project didn't work out, and Solal's recordings remained stashed away to gather dust until 1983, when the late record producer and businessman David Hubert located and preserved them. Fresh Sound purchased them in 1993 from Hubert.
Trying to find out more information about these sessions, I contacted Solal himself, who kindly explained what he remembers about them:
"Unfortunately I don't have much to tell you about Ross Russell. I think I met him in Paris, where he offered to organize a recording session. He had given me a copy of the book he wrote about Charlie Parker (The Sound). He said he had a little money and that he wanted to start a record company. I was very proud and very happy, of course. I went to Los Angeles. He kept telling me during the recording that he liked it, etc. Since he was happy with the results, we continued, up to three sessions. Afterwards, I did not see him again.
As for Ross, he seemed to me like the quiet type, discreet, perhaps shy.
He was, I believe, around sixty at the time."
Prior to this trip to Los Angeles, Solal had visited the United States twice. In 1963, when American jazz audiences had hardly heard of the pianist, producer George Wein decided to invite him to play at the Newport Jazz Festival — Wein, artistic director of the festival, had heard Solal's trio in Paris and was fascinated by his technique and original conception of his playing. However, for his American debut, Solal encountered an unexpected problem — the Union (American Federation of Musicians) did not allow him to bring the two other members of his magnificent trio, he was only authorized to play accompanied by two local musicians. Meanwhile, bassist Guy Pedersen and drummer Daniel Humair, very upset by the Union's decision, stayed in Paris.
Solal traveled to New York on May 10th, almost two months before the date of the festival, because Wein had arranged for him a 6-week run at the Hickory House, 52nd Street's last remaining jazz club. Bill Evans was going to leave for Los Angeles by himself to play at Shelly's Manne-Hole, which gave Solal the chance to play with Evans' superb rhythm section — bassist Teddy Kotick and drummer Paul Motian. His playing made a great impression on those hearing him for the first time. "First of all," wrote Ira Gitler in Down Beat, "he is a man with a prodigious technique, and though he does not show off with it, the listener is nevertheless well aware of his facility. As good as Kotick and Motian are, Solal's technique often made them seem superfluous, in the sense that when he elected to keep changing his pace, they were at odds with him."
After the enthusiasm he generated at Hickory House, the pianist conquered the difficult public of Newport, where he appeared with the same trio on Sunday, July 7th, in "a short set that showed how much more closely together Solal, Kotick and Motian have drawn since the trio first opened at Hickory House in June. Perhaps their set seemed short because it was so well played," wrote Gitler in his concert review for Down Beat.
Following his triumphant Newport performance, Solal's engagement at the Hickory House was extended until August 27. He then visited Canada to play at the Montreal Jazz Festival, and was also engaged to perform at the Casa Loma club, where he stayed until mid- September. After his successful American tour, he returned to Paris, where he rejoined Pedersen and Humair. The trio was scheduled to appear in two concerts. The first was at the Berlin Jazz festival, and the second at the first Lugano jazz festival on the 20th, organized by the city's Jazz Club. Needless to say, the trio was the highlight of the festival.
His second visit to the US was in December 1964, when he flew to San Francisco to make his first West Coast appearance, a two-week engagement at El Matador. After closing, he went to Los Angeles persuaded by Leonard Feather, to participate in a Blindfold Test organized by Down Beat.
In August, back in Paris, he organized a new trio with bassist Gilbert (Bibi) Rovere and drummer Charles Bellonzi, two of the most gifted musicians in France. This trio achieved the same heights as his previous effort, and was even considered steadier and even more brilliant than the previous one.
Come June 1966, Solal returned to Los Angeles by himself to record the sessions at hand for Ross Russell. A trip that stayed under the radar, and that Martial vaguely remembers "When he came to pick me up at the airport," Martial recalls, "I asked if I could stay at the same hotel from before, because I had really enjoyed my stay in 1964. When we arrived in front of the hotel, it did not exist anymore... So Ross took me to a nice hotel in the center, and then we went straight to the studio."
Now we can finally hear these three amazing piano sessions, compiled and remastered in two CD volumes. For our enormous pleasure, we discover Martial Solal at its best. He fully displays his incontestable talent, dazzling virtuosity and invention, but also his good taste and sense of humor in the execution. The originality of his conception, paired with his elegant control and technique, put him on a par with the great American pianists.
From his piano emerges a great number of effects, with no trace of gratuitousness or superfluity. His melodic lines are perfectly legible and his changes of rhythm absolutely justified, as they reinforce the balance of the discourse and stimulate the swing much more than they dispute it.
I think back at the time, Martial Solal explained better than I could his influences and personal tastes in jazz pianists:
"Admittedly, like everyone else, I admire Art Tatum, his virtuoso side, his independence with both hands, his immense harmonic knowledge (he had something better than his own system: he had them all), but I think he did not always use his technique and his knowledge appropriately. The juggler often concealed the musician. I rather followed Teddy Wilson in my youth, another example of a great technician if there was one, and in whom I found a kind of perfection of execution. Today, opposite of Tatum, at the other pole, there is Thelonious Monk, who impressed me more than any other keyboard specialist. I like all of his themes foremost, but everything he writes is great. I also like his austerity, he strips anything superfluous of his piano playing. Tatum's skill is something, but 1 find the musical integrity of Monk much better."
If anyone can complement the unique angularity of Monk's music and make it more humorous and delightfully quirky than it already is it's Martial Solal. Checkout this version of Blue Monk to hear what I mean.