Martial Solal’s Last Concert

Solal cover 2

what a performanceCOMING YESTERDAY / DUKE-GERSHWIN: I Can’t Get Started. SOLAL: Coming Yesterday. ELLINGTON-TIZOL-STRAYHORN: Medley: SOLAL: Sir Jack. YOUMANS-CAESAR: Tea for Two. TRADITIONAL: Happy Birthday. RAMIREZ-SHERMAN-DAVIS: Lover Man. RAYE-DePAUL-JOHNSTON: I’ll Remember April. RODGERS-HART: My Funny Valentine. Have You Met Miss Jones? / Martial Solal, pno; / Challenge CR 73516 (live: Paris, January 23, 2019)

“When I walked onto the stage on January 23, 2019,” Martial Solal wrote, “I did not yet know that I would decide not to play piano anymore after this concert, more than seventy years after my debut. To maintain a certain level, this instrument requires your daily attention; it requires delicacy, brutality, and especially energy. I have lived with these demands all my life, with the joy of seeing the progress, the technical and musical advances, the rhythmic and harmonic enrichments that we acquire over time. Of course, everything goes very fast at first. As long as you are gifted, if you spend a little time on it, if you listen to what was done before you, if you choose a path, everything may seem easy. Progress is rapid, illusions are immense, and then walls arise, walls that you want to reach and overcome. Seventy years to achieve this is a minimum… When energy is no longer available, it is better to stop.”

Thus ended the career of the then-91-year-old pianist who had been France’s first real jazz keyboard superstar, a man who came up during the bebop era, jammed with both Django Reinhardt and Sidney Bechet, made a tremendous impact at his American debut during the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival, then continued a brilliant career year after year until this concert.

Ironically for a man who came up playing the most modern jazz, Solal never moved beyond the bop/progressive swing orbit, which is reflected in his choice of tunes in this last album. He didn’t much care for free jazz, fusion or the other avant-garde styles that emerged from the mid-1960s onward, yet his playing, described by French critic Jean-Pierre Thiollet as “brilliant, unique and intellectual,” never failed to generate enthusiasm.

And he is superb on this CD as well. You’d never guess that this was the work of a 91-year-old man; it has the same freshness and sparkle as his earlier recordings, and that in itself is a testament to his greatness. The only other pianist I can think of who comes close to him for both longevity and brilliance is Dick Hyman. Hyman spent much of his career emulating the styles of earlier great pianists such as Jelly Roll Morton, Arthur Schutt, Fats Waller, Art Tatum and Bud Powell, though he does indeed have his own way of playing when he has a mind to.

The intro to I Can’t Get Started is typical of his style: bitonal, rhythmically asymmetric, and until he plays a few notes of the melody almost a minute in, you haven’t a clue what song he’s playing. Solal always marched to the beat of a different drummer, which in a way is an ironic statement because through much of his career he played entirely solo, without drums (or bass). I liken his style to a more modern, abstract version of Earl Hines, and although one can nitpick on a few moments here and there where his technique doesn’t sound quite as smooth as it did in decades past, it is still good enough to allow him to play whatever comes into his head.

Indeed, Solal’s abstract approach to both tune construction and improvisation continues throughout this recital, showing him to have still been operating at a very high level despite his years. I can’t think of too many contemporaries of his, save perhaps McCoy Tyner and one or two others, who could produce what Solal did on the piano.

In fact, his penchant for cerebral deconstruction of the music he plays continues throughout the set, and it is this that continually grabs one’s attention. The lack of a fully fluent technique does not interfere with what he is doing because what he is doing goes beyond technique. And occasionally he makes you laugh, as when he suddenly ends Tea for Two with the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. He can even take as simple a tune as Happy Birthday to You and turn it upside-down and inside-out, throwing in a bit of blues and boogie along the way. And there were a couple of moments in his treatment of Lover Man that reminded me of Dave Brubeck.

What a wonderful gift this is from the old man of French jazz, an icon for more than 60 years. This is a CD to treasure.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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