“You’ll get tired before I will,” joked the French-Algerian piano veteran Martial Solal at the Museum of Modern Art last summer, as he began his fifth encore to a tsunami of applause. The dare was a manifestation of the mischievous streak that has always animated Solal’s playing, but the 81-year-old’s next move–launching into Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol’s “Caravan” for the third time in just over an hour–proved that he was dead set on testing the crowd’s stamina.
Or maybe not. Much as he’d done during his earlier passes through the tune, at first Solal masked “Caravan,” approaching it in a way that not even his longtime bassist, Francois Moutin, immediately recognized. As the pianist dissected the piece’s melody rather than its chord changes, his imaginative powers seemed limitless, knotty and stunningly contemporary–even in the face of antecedents that reach even further back than jazz does. Solal has always talked about (and displayed) a love for classical composers like Debussy and jazz-piano godheads like Art Tatum. But upon hearing him at MoMA, a friend who’s a pianist from the Middle East had other ideas. “Isn’t he from somewhere in the Arab world?” she asked. “The way he builds his solos suggests that. He uses melodic motifs to develop his lines more so than chord progressions…. They’re like cells that multiply and spread. The feel is much more horizontal than vertical.”
If only such speculation, seductive though it may be, was buttressed by the historic record. Revealing that an Arabic sensibility figures in the sonic DNA of a jazz powerhouse would be parallel to a reminder that one of the staples of Victorian literature, Edward FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, retains the structure of an eleventh-century Persian poem that was still vital enough in the twentieth century to be sung by Oum Kalthoum, the Arab world’s most enduring music icon. Solal was born in North Africa, but as the son of French parents (Jews, more specifically, which meant he was barred from attending music school in Vichy-era Algiers) the pianist was thinking westward long before he finally relocated to Paris in 1950, at 23. His earliest recordings reveal a proficiency in the jazz idiom that far surpassed that of many of his French peers, which is why Solal quickly became the pianist of choice for homegrown luminaries like Django Reinhardt as well as for visiting American jazz dignitaries such as Sidney Bechet and Lucky Thompson. (Readers of French can glean more details about Solal’s early career from his recently published memoir, Ma vie sur un tabouret [Actes Sud; [euro]18.80].) A decade later, Solal pretty much turned his back on career opportunities in the United States, even though Louis Armstrong’s strong-arming agent Joe Glaser and Newport Jazz Festival honcho George Wein had been clearing the way. Bigger stardom came calling anyway: Solal composed and recorded the score for Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (À bout de souffle), music that would turn him into a French icon and eventually lead to his 2008 appearance at MoMA, during the museum’s Jazz Score series.
The MoMA performance is beginning to look like the last time American audiences will have had an opportunity to hear Solal play live and in the flesh. When the fruit of his October 2007 visit here, Live at the Village Vanguard: I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, was released in late January, Solal announced that he was giving up touring. The disc, his second striking solo-piano recital in the past four years, might turn out to be the culmination of the flurry of available releases (and activity) following Solal’s nearly thirty-year absence from the United States. (In September 2001 he was in New York City when the events of 9/11 put his long-awaited return engagement on hold.) Tellingly, when NPR’s Frank Browning visited Solal at his suburban Paris home late last year for a spot on All Things Considered, what he found was a content octogenarian entertaining himself with the latest composing software and Apple computers. “I’m crazy about those machines,” the pianist enthused. “I have five computers in [this] house.”
To the uninitiated, Solal’s playing might sound anything but tranquil on first hearing. It’s tempting to place his work squarely in the avant-garde, but that doesn’t truly explain Solal’s insistence on retaining and reinterpreting much of the repertoire he cut his teeth on as a regular at the Club St. Germain in the ’50s. I’d wager that no jazz fan who has heard Solal lead his trio through the deconstruction of “Tea for Two,” on last year’s Longitude, could fail to marvel at how the tune remained thoroughly recognizable through myriad dynamic tempo and key shifts. I Can’t Give You Anything But Love contains another of his favorites, Rodgers and Hart’s “Have You Met Miss Jones,” a ditty long freed of its music-theater duties by jazz musicians and yet still inherently boppish–until Solal turns its graceful ascending figure inside out. (At MoMA, he exhibited his characteristic playfulness by introducing the tune with a question: “Do you know her?”) One can hear the seeds of the new solo version in the tumbling low-register accompaniment Solal applies to trumpeter Dave Douglas’s muted lines on “Rue de Seine,” their 2006 duet.
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love is easily Solal’s most accessible disc in about a decade (also search out Just Friends, his one-off 1997 trio session with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian), but this shouldn’t be taken as a sign that he’s mellowing or slowing down. On the contrary, when I played the new disc and several others from his catalog–some as early as 1961–for my Middle Eastern friend, it was clear that the manner of embellishment she’d attributed to Arabic-music sensibilities has been asserting itself even more in his recent music. What’s also evident from the renderings of “On Green Dolphin Street,” “Lover Man” and the title track is that without a rhythm section Solal is supremely unmoored from the sort of swing associated with his early idols Bud Powell and Art Tatum. The result is often a mesmerizing vertiginous swirl of notes that contains just enough melodic information to remain suspenseful. If you think you don’t ever need to hear well-worn classics like Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” or Antonio Carlos Jobim’s romantic bossa nova “Corcovado” again, Solal’s reimaginings are a tonic. And just when it seems as if his powers couldn’t be more otherworldly, Solal throws in two stunning original pieces, “Centre de Gravite” and “Ramage,” that prove his compositional mindset is perhaps even more fertile than his improvisational one–in fact, they audibly feed each other. It’s as if he’s rewarding the listener for rising to his dare.