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French pianist, composer, and bandleader Martial Solal's intuitive approach to improvisation has earned him an honored place among the greatest minds in all of jazz. Thoroughly versed in the tradition from big-band swing to bop and post-bop, Solal has also composed chamber music, written scores for more than 20 films, and recorded more than 50 albums as soloist and leader. For more than half a century, Solal personified the cross-pollinated splendor of European jazz by utilizing styles and influences from both sides of the Atlantic to generate and sustain musical ideas that almost invariably come across as intelligent, pleasant, and gratifying. A student of 20th century European composers such as Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky, Alban Berg, and Olivier Messiaen, his early influences on piano were Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, and Art Tatum, followed by Erroll Garner, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans. Some might hear elements of Herbie Nichols or Dodo Marmarosa. Both Oscar Peterson and Duke Ellington held him in highest esteem. As a composer he is clearly descended from both Ellington and Thelonious Monk. Each of these currents flows freely yet systematically through his music, tempered by his own unique sensibilities and a vast store of impressions harvested and manifested during a lengthy lifetime spent in absorption, reflection, and emanation.
Born to French parents in Algiers, North Africa, on August 23, 1927, Martial Solal grew up under the influence of his mother, an opera singer who encouraged him to learn to play piano, clarinet, and saxophone. In 1942 the Vichy government's adopted Nazi racial policies (enforced in the French colony of Algeria) resulted in his expulsion from school, solely on account of his father's Jewish ancestry. Already familiar with the classical piano repertoire from Bach to Debussy, young Solal now became a full-time musical autodidact. A turning point occurred when he pushed himself to emulate a recording he heard over the radio, unaware that he'd been listening to a piece for piano four hands. (Similarly, finger-style guitar virtuoso Guy Van Duser cited an overdubbed Chet Atkins record as an important inspiration for his own exceptional accomplishments.) By the age of 15, Solal was performing publicly, often playing to an audience of U.S. Armed Forces personnel.
Solal continued to study and perform while enlisted in the military, began working professionally in 1945, and moved to Paris in 1950, performing in nightclubs and making his first recordings as soloist and sideman, sometimes under the name of O.J. Jaguar. During this period he worked with bassist Pierre Michelot and in bands led by trumpeter Aimé Barelli, drummers Gerard Pochonet and Benny Bennett, and triple-threat trumpet/clarinet/tenor sax man Noel Chiboust. Solal formed a quartet in 1951 with trumpeter Roger Guerin, bassist Paul Rovère, and drummer Daniel Humair. He recorded with an ensemble under the direction of composer Andre Hodeir in 1952, then cut an LP with his own trio and participated in Django Reinhardt's very last session in 1953. In 1955 Solal played on what appears to have been Argentine composer and bandoneon virtuoso Astor Piazzolla's first European recording date. He jammed with guitarist Henri Crolla and progressive clarinetists/tenor saxophonists Hubert Rostaing and Maurice Meunier, and in 1956 was heard on one of earliest albums ever to appear under the name of Claude Bolling.
Solal's artistic collaborations with visiting or expatriate U.S. jazz musicians during the 1950s and early '60s included sessions with trumpeter Clark Terry, trombonist Quentin "Butter" Jackson, saxophonists Sidney Bechet, Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, and Stan Getz, guitarist Jimmy Gourley, bassist Joe Benjamin, and drummers Kenny Clarke and Roy Haynes, as well as bassist Curtis Counce among a small contingent of instrumentalists associated with bandleader Stan Kenton. In 1960 Solal achieved international fame when he scored music for the soundtrack to Jean-Luc Godard's film A Bout de Soufflé. Together with trumpeter Roger Guerin, alto saxophonist Pierre Gossez, vibraphonist Michael A. Hauser, bassist Paul Rovère, and drummer Daniel Humair, Solal created a fascinating suite of deceptively simple variations that greatly enhanced the film's restless pacing, thrilling plot, and revolutionary editing. Other filmic projects would include scores for films by Godard's contemporaries Jean-Pierre Melville, Henri Verneuil, Edouard Molinaro, and Jean Becker, as well as Jean Cocteau's Testament of Orpheus and Franz Kafka's The Trial as interpreted by Orson Welles.
A period of busy productivity ensued, including live performances and several albums with Humair and bassist Guy Pedersen. In 1963 Solal appeared live in Berlin, at the Hickory House in New York, in Montreal, and at the Newport Jazz Festival with bassist Teddy Kotick and drummer Paul Motian. A brief alignment with Attila Zoller and Hans Koller resulted in a configuration remembered as Zo-Ko-So. From 1965-1969, Solal's reconstituted trio included Gilbert "Bibi" Rovère and drummer Charles Bellonzi. In 1967 Solal was heard in San Francisco and at the Monterey Jazz Festival. During the 1960s he recorded with guitarist Wes Montgomery and trombonist Slide Hampton, initiated a long-standing artistic relationship with saxophonist Lee Konitz, and performed in duet with pianist Hampton Hawes backed by Pierre Michelot and Kenny Clarke. During the 1970s Solal recorded as a soloist at various locales including Villingen, Germany, and Warsaw, Poland; in duets with Konitz, Stéphane Grappelli, Joachim Kühn, and bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen; in trios with Pedersen, Rovère, Jean-François Jenny-Clark, and Humair; in quartets with Konitz, Pedersen, Dave Holland, guitarist John Scofield, and Jack DeJohnette; and with a band led by George Gruntz.
During the 1980s Solal led a 25-piece big band, appeared live at New York's Town Hall with an ensemble led by Daniel Humair, and continued to record as a soloist. Solal's two piano concerti, composed during the '80s, were recorded in 1989. A resurgence of activity occurred during the '90s, as he teamed up with pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque and engaged in creative duets with pianist Joachim Kühn, violinist Didier Lockwood, mouth organist Toots Thielemans, trumpeter Eric Le Lann, and tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin. Solal's trios now involved bassists Marc Johnson and Gary Peacock, drummers Paul Motian and Peter Erskine. He also made an album with bassist Mads Vinding and Daniel Humair backed by the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra.
Martial Solal inaugurated the 21st century by composing music for Les Acteurs, a film directed by Bertrand Blier, and remained active in the recording studios. In one setting, Solal's quartet was augmented by an orchestra conducted by Patrice Caratini. Solal's 12-piece "Dodecaband" interpreted an album's worth of Ellington tunes and his "Une Piece Pour Quatre" was included with compositions by Phil Woods, Paquito d'Rivera, and Aldemaro Romero in an album by the Accademia Saxophone Quartet. He recorded an album with a scaled-down "Newdecaband" that included vocalizations by his daughter Claudia Solal, and collaborated with clarinetist Rolf Kuhn and with trumpeter Dave Douglas, who later commented on Solal's "fearless" approach to timing and interpretation. In 2008 Solal recorded a trio album with the brothers Louis and François Moutin and was the senior guest of honor on an album of edgy, angular music by Michel Magne, quite possibly influenced by Lennie Tristano and perfectly suited to the mind and temperament of the octogenarian pianist.