"Tonight is a very important night because we recording the show. I have to be good and you have to be good too," Solal jokes to his Village Vanguard audience in New York, but it would not be surprising if the pianist felt some pressure. The few appearances that Solal has made in the US are startling, considering that he is one of the greatest pianists in the history of Jazz.
Solal, born Algiers in 1927, has worked most of his life in Paris with a varied cast of collaborators, including Hampton Hawes
, Lee Konitz
, Johnny Griffin
, and Django Reinhardt
even Sidney Bechet
. He has written for films, his soundtrack of Jean Luc Godard's Breathless
(1960) being his best-known. Captured on October 12, 2007, Live at the Village Vanguard: I Can't Give You Anything But Love
is solo Solal, the best way to experience the pianist as he does not really need anyone else.
Like the stand-up comedian, the solo pianist has to be brave, as there is nowhere to hide. Part of Solal's bravery is the use of standards; rather than hiding his improvising, he uses tunes familiar to his audience. Many will realize the structure, understanding where he is going and how ingenious he is being. One of Solal's main delights is his variation on a theme, the extent and creativity of his improvisations made crystal clear. Solal delivers a standard like "Loverman" as an intricately wrapped present with tantalizing clues to its identity. He is an illusionist who, once he reveals the subject of an improvisation, continues to astound. Breaking a composition up into a mosaic that he then reharmonizes, the left hand assumes a walking bass line as the right hand turns heated, before Solal sets off into a maze of his own making, not unlike a Debussy prelude.
Intelligent, and with a formidable technique, Solal's work has not changed greatly since his first recordings in the fifties. The obvious comparison is with Art Tatum
, though Solal's European sensibility is preferable to Tatum's variations on standardswhich, though technically dazzling, are obvious, formulaic and rarely surprising. Solal approach is concert hall rather than bar room: these are almost classical variations. He is detached, taking delight in his own conceits; detachment that can seem cold, but Solal is not an emotional musician but is, instead, a calculating improviser.
Solal does not really want an audience; instead, he wants accomplices with a sense of humor. One of the surprising things about this session is the laughternot from verbal jokes, but from musical ones; it suddenly becomes clear that jazz rarely makes people laughsmile, sometimes, but "Have You Met Miss Jones" both starts and finishes with laughter. The skittish figure that Solal begins with seems to imply that "Miss Jones" is a feisty young woman.
As with all Solal's solo sets, Live at the Village Vanguard: I Can't Give You Anything But Love
is about improvisation, daring, wit, embellishment, risk, cleverness, excellence, fun and, above all, brilliance.