“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.