|photo by Jim Boon
French pianist, band leader, composer and arranger - Born Algiers, August 23, 1927
To label Martial Solal is close to impossible - and futile too. Generally speaking, he is some kind of a "modern" player, but one that sometimes reminds you of the "classic" jazz masters, sometimes pioneers the future. You may find traces of Tatum, Garner, Ellington, Monk, Powell, Evans, Peterson a. o., as well as a certain undertone of both French-North African folklore and European art music - but all of it as ingredients of a digested and unified whole sounding unmistakably as Solal.
Solal is capable of fitting in with groups of almost any stylistic observance, and takes a most active and creative part in the proceedings. He seems to master a vast repertory, whether old blues, evergreens, jazz standards or originals.
Based on a thorough theoretic knowledge Solal may apply anything from slight harmonic embellishments to a complete reharmonization including all kinds of extensions, substitutions and passing chords following each other in rapid succession. He realizes the specific possibilities of the piano, not only regarding harmony. To him the percussive potential of the instrument is just as important. By liberating and equalizing the left hand as to the right, one purpose of his is to make full use of the whole keyboard.
A significant characteristic of Solal's unique and individual style is his ability to structuralize his solos, to survey improvised sequences in order to build up a clear form, and within the resulting frameworks to organize the overwhelming flow of melodic ideas including all those details, sometimes surprising, sometimes witty, that enrich his music. Solalizing it has been called - the interpretations, transformations or sometimes rather condemnations leading to a complete remodeling beyond recognition that any song may undergo exposed to his reading.
Solal, a piano virtuoso and a great improviser, is a serious and self-disciplined artist. The attendant serenity and maturity during later years are certainly not attempts of explaining away anything like artistic stagnation. On the contrary, Solal continues to expand his musical language. He is not just staying on firm ground but is as any creative improviser taking risks every now and then.
Some of these extraordinary powers and capabilities also form part of the basis of Martial Solal as a composer and arranger. Important achievements have been music written for and performed by larger groups, in most cases conducted by himself. These works are often catchy at first as well as substantial and ambiguous, revealing more facets at each hearing.
In continuation of his piano playing the composer Martial Solal is in an even higher degree not limited to stylistic conventions, his work often characterized by deviations from what one would expect, by sudden contrast and deliberate discontinuity. Equal original is the sounds, the shadings, and the orchestral colors he is bringing to light writing for the standard big band instrumentation. He deserves full credit as one of the great jazz composers of today.
Solal's imposing stature, as a piano player mainly presented in solo, duo and trio contexts, has overshadowed his remarkable big band achievements. This situation is one of several reasons justifying the election of Martial Solal as The JAZZPAR Prize Winner 1999 - cf. The Guidelines for The International JAZZPAR Prize Committee, the superior criterion of all being that The Prize must be awarded to an internationally known and fully active jazz artist who is specially deserving of further acclaim.
The early years
Son of French parents Martial Solal grew up in Algeria. As a school age child his mother, an opera singer, started him on the piano. Local gigs from 1942 as a pianist, clarinetist and saxophonist.
One day over the radio Solal heard what he believed was a solo piano performance by a master apparently in complete command of the instrument. Solal took this as a standard to attain, implying that he just had to equal the world's most proficient concert notabilities. He certainly did so, much later to discover that four, not two hands had been called for to record the piece decisive as to his instrumental ambition. In addition to the piano studies he also learned to play various wind instruments, knowledge later to benefit from as a big band composer and arranger.
22 years old Martial Solal arrived in Paris - this city often considered the jazz center of Europe. As such an obvious talent the relative narrow and otherwise rather unapproachable circle of Parisian jazz professionals simply had to accept him. Gigs followed each other in quick succession, and he attracted favorable notice already at the first recording session of those more than a hundred Solal has taken part in through the years.
Most important were the numerous club gigs. For instance he followed Bud Powell in the Three Bosses (Pierre Michelot on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums). Soon Solal was the regular piano player at the "Club St-Germain" and "Blue Note", the Parisian Meccas of jazz, where tourists as well as the locals flocked. For a number of years he played these and other clubs, learning and improving every day as he worked - as well as recorded - in close cooperation with the best French jazz musicians and those famous American soloists visiting Paris during the period.
Jazz of the world
Irrespective of the individual styles of these soloists Solal was the accompanist preferred. He acquired an exceptional wide experience without sacrificing any of the pronounced originality of his playing.
In 1956, Solal was for the first time fronting a big band of his own with which he recorded original compositions and arrangements written by himself. In spite of all obstacles this artistic success has been repeated a number of times. Since 1959 another result of Solal's efforts as a composer has been scores for more than 40 films.
In 1963, the American impresario, promoter and pianist George Wein arranged an American tour presenting Solal at festivals as well as concerts, in Canada as well as the US, on the west as well as the East Coast, including Wein's own Newport Festival. One effect of this initiative was increased touring including recitals at famous concert halls in most parts of the world. Correspondingly, Solal's international reputation as one of the chosen few great jazz pianists of all time without regard to nationality has been further consolidated. Just consult the reference books of jazz. He has won several national awards, and the city of Paris has established an international jazz piano competition in his name.
Martial Solal will turns 80 and he is France's greatest pianist.
Yet jazz fans still ask: "Qui est Monsieur Solal?"
Christopher Porter, JazzTimes - January
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