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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.


"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.

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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