For the last 40 years, a landmark has been ignored in this country. A fixture in Europe, over here Martial Solal is best known for his brushes with America: a ’63 concert at Newport, a ’68 duet with Hampton Hawes. That is our loss: a listen to this and it’s obvious ... he’s indebted to nobody. Sure, there are influences – his radical standards recall Cecil Taylor, there’s a hint of Bill Evans’ warmth – but the blend sounds unique to these ears. Backed by two Evans sidemen (Paul Motian joined Solal at the Newport date) the tone is never languid – a romp in new territory, on songs you know. Beauty where we weren’t expecting it, from a man we barely knew existed.
So many things are happening here. Jolting tempos, brittle jabs outside the expected chords, clustered notes – all as the rhythm goes its conventional way. While sardonic chords launch "Night and Day", the cymbals canter off merrily. Solal quotes "Well, You Needn’t", then breathless skitters, then a glistening lounge rendition – but only for a moment. Motian cracks some swing beats, eliciting a straight version of the theme, and then it ends. You marvel at the display, which never seems gimmicky; everything fits. Even when it seems it won’t: "Gang of Five" opens with great decorum: stately chords floating over a ballroom. Paul spatters the brushes, obeying no meter; Johnson steps in, droning with a bow; the dissonance grows, the Taylor influence heard more than once. Then it’s a hokey tremolo, next to a big walkin’ bass – blink, and we’re back to Cecil. You hear instant reactions, new approaches for new situations – this is what thought sounds like. Come to think of it, that is a good definition of jazz.
A fractured boogie moves on unsteady legs, then is transformed – "’Round About Midnight". He’s got Monkish devices (edgy slams, modernist stride), but it’s far from Thelonious. Martial paints in broad strokes: massive low rumbles, fast repetition – then it grows still, as it quotes "Misterioso". Themes poke through slowly, reflecting through the haze of cymbals. An austere tone, and far from jazz; no wonder the notes compare him to French classicists. "Being in Love" is closer to home: a typical trio, with just a moment of Cecil. Johnson walks beautifully, his solo deep and elegant. "Balade" could be in a salon: mournful bows adorn icy clusters. Focus shifts among the players, while the mood remains: calm at present, but despair for the future. It never resolves, and the final chord goes on forever. Hopefully, the despair won’t.
It doesn’t. "Tramp" has a spring in her step: the theme’s brought in three-note bursts, and different voicings. Johnson has fun: up in cello range for his solo, ending in an earthy bellow. Big chords turn to shimmers on "My Old Flame", a ballad you can dance to. (Check that minuet in the middle.) Here the odd chords are a distraction – except at the end where they add a sweet texture. That mood carries to the end – "Waltz" has the lushness of Evans, and a tempo that wanders(try dancing to this!) Martial is solo, and his filigrees sparkle – there’s a sense of regret that this will soon end. This bristles with thought, a search for what lies in the unexplored corner. Here’s hoping he finds it – and you find this.