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Artist Profiles

Martial Solal: Solal Seul

By Published: November 19, 2007
Among the musicians he was soon playing with were such American expatriates as soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, saxophonist Sonny Stitt and drummer Kenny Clarke (a longtime trio mate), as well as the under-sung tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson.

"Lucky came to Paris and chose me as his pianist, remembers Solal, "and we played a lot in France and all over Europe. He was playing in the style of somebody I liked very much before him, Don Byas, with whom I'd also had a chance to play. To me Lucky was his sort of son in musical style. But he was a really good composer too; every time we made a record he would come in with all these new, excellent tunes he'd written.


Solal has also been a prolific composer, writing contemporary art music, Third Stream music and over twenty film scores as well as compositions and arrangements for the big bands he's led for almost three decades.

"I have had different big bands, he says. "First it was sixteen pieces, then twenty, then twelve pieces for the DoDecaBand I did my album tribute to Duke Ellington with. Now I have a band with only ten people. It's very different music than what I've done before, very interesting, with only brass, no saxophones and it features a female singer, my daughter Claudia Solal.

In 1999, Solal was awarded the international Jazzpar Prize—from its inception in 1990 through 2004, after which it has been in hiatus, the richest prize in jazz, hence sometimes called the Jazz Nobel Prize. (The other pianists who have won the prize are Muhal Richard Abrams, Geri Allen, Django Bates, Tommy Flanagan and Andrew Hill). The citation from the Jazzpar committee notes that Solal "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.

Yet, for all his accomplishments and such honors as the Jazzpar Prize, Solal is not that well-known as a jazz giant in this country. Morgenstern thinks that's largely because he "has never had the proper US exposure. But another reason may be that he's such a musical chameleon that he's never established an identifiable personal style and jazz voice. That's what the Jazzpar citation implies in its opening sentences: "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 of the future.

Martial Solal

"He's similar to Tatum in a way, says Konitz. "Sometimes with his perfect time and amazing improvising ability he hasn't defined a clear-cut jazz personality. He's just very flexible in the tradition but somehow has gone off on his own and hasn't registered a clear-cut jazz voice like Bud Powell or Lennie Tristano or McCoy Tyner. Yet he's one of the great pianists, creatively and pianistically.

So let's give Solal himself the final word:

"I loved what we called Middle Jazz [swing mainstream] and then bebop came along and was important to me and I moved in a more contemporary style. But I followed my own direction, keeping what I loved when I was young, which is that jazz feeling—the time, the tempo, the harmonies and swing. It is difficult to explain with words, especially in English when you are French. Just listen to my music.

Selected Discography

Martial Solal, NY-1 (Live at the Village Vanguard) (Blue Note, 2001)

Martial Solal DoDecaBand, Plays Ellington (Dreyfus, 1997)

Lee Konitz/Martial Solal, Star Eyes, Hamburg 1983 (hatHUT, 1983)

Atilla Zoller/Hans Koller/Martial Solal, Zo Ko So (SABA-MPS, 1965)

Lucky Thompson, Lucky in Paris (HighNote, 1959)

Martial Solal, The Vogue Recordings, Vol. 1-3 (Vogue/BMG, 1953-56)

Photo Credit
Top Photo: Courtesy of the Jazzpar Award website.
Bottom Photo: Juan-Carlos Hernandez

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