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Martial Solal

Martial Solal

Born on 23 August 1927 in Algiers (Algeria), Martial Solal is certainly the French musician who meets with the wider international recognition since Django Reinhardt. From New Orleans, middle jazz, be bop to advanced modern jazz, the breadth of his career and the richness of his work amply justify this distinction, without forgetting the essential: his exceptional talents as an instrumentalist and composer, and the incredible fertility of his imagination in improvisation that made him one of the most admired pianists, far beyond the circle of jazz. Under the influence of his mother, an amateur opera singer, he started studying classical piano, clarinet and saxophone at the age of six, and discovered jazz as a teenager through Lucky Starway, a saxophonist-bandleader who introduced him to the recordings of Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, etc. and trained the young pianist to accompany him. Fascinated by the feeling of freedom through improvisation, Solal decided to become a jazz musician in 1945. This initiation encouraged him to practice intensively his piano technique. Settled in Paris in 1950, he worked in jazz groups, and in variety orchestras (sometimes under the pseudonym of Jo Jaguar), gradually gaining a reputation that earned him quick access to the recording studios: with Django Reinhardt for his last recording session (1953), Don Byas, Lucky Thompson (1956), Sidney Bechet (1957). Asked in the best Parisian clubs by the American soloists passing through (Coleman Hawkins, Clifford Brown, Slide Hamtpton, Wes Montgomery, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, etc.), he was during ten years the Club Saint-Germain house pianist, frequently associated with Kenny Clarke and Pierre Michelot. Recognized as a brilliant instrumentalist, he imposed himself since 1953 as a soloist with singular conceptions, developing his activity as leader of a trio including in those years Pierre Michelot and Jean-Louis Viale, Guy Pedersen and Daniel Humair (1960-1964 – historical concerts and albums at Salle Gaveau in 1962 and 1963!), or Gilbert «Bibi» Rovère and Charles Bellonzi (1965-1968). Sans Tambour ni Trompette (1970), an innovative project, features the pianist with two double-bass players (Gilbert «Bibi» Rovère and Jean-François Jenny-Clark.

His growing fame led him to be invited in 1963 to perform in clubs and festivals in the United States with Teddy Kotick and Paul Motian, and to record At Newport '63. The trio imposes itself as the setting that perfectly suits the pianist to express the originality of his inspiration, and becomes the privileged place to exercise a thought of enlightened arranger seeking to leave the traditional patterns – both in the form of the tunes and in the roles devoted to each instrument. A master in the art of transfiguring standards, he develops with breathtaking mastery a demanding approach to improvisation, based on constant renewal, his virtuosity feeding an imagination on the alert rejecting easiness or clichés. If one finds in his game echoes of the harmonic refinement of an Art Tatum or a taste of speed and sharpness that reminds Bud Powell, Martial Solal is among the most remarkable pianists by his ability to spontaneously combine a fruitful thought, a precise enunciation, the sense of surprise and that of risk – the abundance of his ideas never affecting the swing or depriving him of his humour. Because as brilliant as it may seem, thanks to the clarity of the articulation and the control of the dynamics that underline the verve of his inspiration, the expression of Martial Solal reveals a malicious character that constantly creates surprises in the more abstract passages – sign of a permanent vigilance that prevents him from getting caught up in the trap of virtuosity. His numerous pun-shaped titles are also a way to preserve himself against a too great spirit of seriousness. Many characteristics of his piano playing are reflected in his talent as a composer. First applied to cinema, for which from 1958 he wrote several film music: the iconic À bout de souffle, by Jean-Luc Godard, and scores for Jean-Pierre Melville (Deux hommes dans Manhattan, Léon Morin Prêtre), Henri Verneuil (L'Affaire d'une nuit), Edouard Molinaro (Les Ennemis) and Jean Becker (Échappement libre), as well as Jean Cocteau’s Testament of Orpheus and Franz Kafka’s The Trial interpreted by Orson Welles. As a result of his growing interest in composition, Martial Solal started writing pieces for small jazz groups: The Suite No. 1 en ré bémol pour quartette de jazz with Roger Guérin on trumpet, Paul Rovère on bass and Daniel Humair (1959) attests that his conception of musical writing is already as advanced as his approach of the piano. Whatever the instrumentation will be, it has to sound 100% Solal! Exciting challenge for a musician who experimented the evolution of the jazz currents that flow freely in his music, was early immersed in the European classical repertoire, familiar with the twentieth century masters (Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinski, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Olivier Messiaen), and curious about contemporary music and crosscurrents. An essential meeting in the fifties with the composer, writer and critic André Hodeir, followed by their long friendship, participates to his ongoing reflection about the place devoted to written and improvised music in small or large ensembles (cf. their first recording, Kenny Clarke’s Sextet Plays André Hodeir, 1956, and Martial Solal et son Orchestre jouent André Hodeir, 1984).


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