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Martial Solal: Solal Seul

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The music you play alone is quite different than what you play with a rhythm section because you have to tell the whole story yourself. Nobody is there to help you or to disturb you.
Martial SolalLorraine Gordon has been trying to persuade pianist Martial Solal to return to the Village Vanguard ever since his unfortunately timed debut there, with a trio, in September of 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Solal, claiming he was too lazy at his age to travel to New York (he was 80 this August, 2007), kept declining the invitation.

"But this year, said Solal from his home in France, "I called Lorraine and said I would come to New York again, but only if I can do something very special, play solo piano at the Vanguard. And it will be a very special event, as I'll be recording a live album and the gig will be taped for European television. .

"Solal is one of the world's greatest jazz pianists, says Dan Morgenstern, veteran jazz critic and Director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. "Now that Tommy Flanagan is gone, I think Hank Jones is his sole living equal. He's a great composer and arranger, but to me his essence is as a solo pianist. The first time I heard him solo, at a George Wein festival event at Carnegie Recital Hall, it was a staggering experience...records did not prepare me for the full impact of his marvelous touch—the sonorities he elicited from the instrument and his range of dynamics—or the brilliant display of ideas that just flowed from his mind and hands. It wasn't a long program, but it sure stayed with me. I was hooked!

Solal has played in every type of jazz situation, from duos and trios to big bands, but his favorite setting is solo.

"It is very difficult, but I like it, says Solal "The music you play alone is quite different than what you play with a rhythm section because you have to tell the whole story yourself. Nobody is there to help you or to disturb you. It's a different approach. In solo, I play mostly standards. With a trio it's easier for the listener to understand original music, but solo piano is harder to follow and understand, so if you use standards it is easier to follow. And I know and have played so many standards over the years that now I choose only the best. For instance 'Tea for Two' and 'I Get A Kick Out of You,' or Duke Ellington pieces; my challenge is to make them seem new.

Solal also enjoys playing in duos and has performed and/or recorded in duet with dozens of jazz musicians, from Stephane Grappelli and Johnny Griffin to Wayne Shorter and Dave Douglas. He has a long, if sporadic, musical relationship with alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, in duos and quartets, that goes back to 1968.

Martial

"Playing with Martial, said Konitz on the phone from his New York home, "is like playing with a symphony orchestra. He's a complete musical virtuoso—sometimes a little flamboyant virtuoso, which I attribute to his being French. But he totally loves to improvise when he's in a challenging situation; when left to his own devices he resorts to what he knows, which is an awful lot. We've done a couple eighty year-olds concerts recently. In duet he's completely open to suggestions and I know he hears everything I do although sometimes it's hard for me to hear everything he does because it's so much. But it's always a great experience playing with him, a special experience.

"I like playing in duets very much, says Solal. "For the pianist it is a different challenge; you understand that he has to do a lot of work, it's not just playing the rhythm behind the duo partner. It can be a very interesting way of making music with another person. Solo and duet are the most difficult settings; the trio is simple, if you get tired you can just let the bassist or drummer solo.

Asked what he learns from playing duets with a wide range of jazz stylists, Solal answers with Gallic wit: "I hope they learn from me. I'm not trying to learn, except that I learn how to be different each time. Considering who you play with, you have to be different yourself. With Stephane Grappelli years ago of course I could not play like I did recently with Wayne Shorter, who is a much freer musician.

Martial Solal was born in Algiers in the then-French colony of Algeria, in 1927, living there until he settled in Paris in 1950. He studied piano from the age of seven with his mother, an opera singer and also studied with a local French-Algerian musician on piano and saxophone.

"I didn't listen to any music except classical and jazz, he says of his youth, "and I wasn't interested in anything else. First it was Ravel, Debussy and Bach, but then came jazz and that was it. My teacher in Algiers, who was a saxophonist but played every instrument, was listening to Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller, Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson and that was my start in jazz. I've been very lucky for as soon as I came to Paris I played in the best jazz clubs with the best French and visiting jazz musicians.

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