Considered one of Europe’s best jazz musicians, pianist Martial Solal is relatively unknown in the United States. Solal was born in Algiers, Algeria, North Africa, where he grew up listening to jazz pianists Fats Waller and Art Tatum and was exposed to bebop. In the forties Solal worked in Algiers as a pianist before settling in Paris in 1950. During the fifties he performed in Parisian clubs, often as backup, with many American expatriate jazz musicians.
The early 1960s were productive years for Solal. He performed for several months at the Hickory House, a club in New York City, and appeared at jazz festivals in Newport, Rhode Island; Montreal, Canada; and Berlin, West Germany. When asked in the sixties what he thought the future of jazz and his place in it would be, Solal recalled to Jerome Reese of Musician, “I said that in order for jazz to survive it had to have a repertoire, jazz musicians had to write important works. Just after that stupid declaration everyone did exactly the opposite, playing totally improvised music. Presently there is a return to traditionalism, and I persist in believing that the future of jazz lies in written music, in longer and longer written sequences, which does not exclude improvisation, of course. I also believe that once one has a very definite style, the only way to evolve is through composing.”
While most jazzmen went the alternate route, emphasizing improvisation, Solal has scored pieces for big band and various trios with which he has performed since the sixties. “Freedom, for me, means being able to go as far as possible in a certain direction, established and prepared in advance,” he told Reese. “But I don’t like the idea of ‘anything goes.’ That’s why I play jazz standards, which give the audience something they can follow more easily and which will perhaps entertain them while having to put up with my, shall we say, busy style. Even when playing my own pieces, a major part of my performance consists of humourous musical citations I’ll throw in as they pop into my head. But this humorous aspect can only be appreciated if the audience knows the standards I’m quoting. I like music that can surprise you at any given moment, not to show off, but in order to produce something different each time.”
At one point in his career, Solal seriously studied classical music to help perfect his technique. Regular daily practice, often consisting of scales, maintains the virtuoso technique that has given him the ability to express whatever he has to say musically. When improvising he explores a melody in a seemingly endless stream of variations, which has given rise to his reputation as a highly technical musician. When the French government commissioned a work from Solal in the early eighties, Solal composed a concerto for piano and orchestra that was played by the big band that eventually involved into the government-supported Orchestre National de Jazz.
While Solal is best known in France for his duo albums with saxophonists Sidney Bechet and Lee Konitz and violinist Stephane Grappelli, he has also composed more than thirty movie scores, including the original French version of Breathless, conducted by Jean-Luc Goddard and starring Jean Paul Belmondo. With the advent of pop music and highly improvisatory jazz in the late sixties, the opportunites for film-score composing vanished.
Through his composing, arranging, and performing, Solal seems to want to legitimize jazz in Europe in general and his distinct style of jazz in particular. “Even if it doesn’t sound modest, I think that one must listen to my music several times because of its density,” Solal declared to Reese. “If you are surprised by the technical aspect, then the musical content may escape you on the first listening. I have always had very high hopes for jazz. I want people who love classical music to find that same perfection in jazz, and 90 percent of jazz doesn’t satisfy that demand.”
Born August 23, 1927, in Algiers, North Africa.
Jazz pianist, composer, arranger; played in Paris during 1950s; formed trio with Humair on drums and Guy Pedersen on bass; performed at Hickory House in New York City, 1963; played at jazz festivals in Newport, R.I., Montreal, Canada, and Berlin, West Germany; formed new trio with Gilbert Rovere (bass) and Charles Bellonzi (drums) 1965; began composing music for films in early 1960s, with more than 30 to his credit including three for Jean Paul Belmondo (Breathless); best known in France for recordings with saxophonists Bechet and Konitz, and violinist Grappelli, 1974-80s.
Address: Home —Suburb of Paris, France.
Bluesine, Soul Note, 1983.
Duplicity (Martial Solal/Lee Konitz), Horo, 1977.
Four Keys (Martial Solal/Lee Konitz), MPS.
Happy Reunion (Stephane Grapelli/Martial Solal), Owl Records.
Impromptu (solo piano), 1985.
Jazz Gaveau, Columbia, 1960.
Key For Two (Martial Solal/Hampton Hawes), Affinity.
Martial Solal Big Band, Gaumont Musique, 1981.
Martial Solal Life 1962/85, (four-album set).
Mystere Solal (big band), 1962.
Suite for Trio (Solal/Pedersen/Humair), MPS, 1978.
Solal 56, Vogue Jazz Legacy.
Jazz Magazine (in French), December 1981; July/August 1983; January 1986.
Musician, March 1989.
—Jeanne M. Lesinski