Round About Midnight. From Martial Solal – Bluesine, 1983
Here’s a track that reminds me why the word for making music is playing – a sparkling unaccompanied piece from a remarkable virtuoso pianist. Jazz can offer plenty of those, but rarely as fascinating as excursions by the Algerian-Frenchman Martial Solal. I knew little of European jazz in the early ‘80s, but a couple of pianists caught the ear. One was Tete Montoliu, who was brilliant, but a little more conventional. The other, Solal, a mainstay of the French scene since the 1950s, and still with us today at 93.
The self-sufficiency of solo piano comes to the fore here, the way the player can accompany, and comment on, their own ideas. I was more strongly drawn to music with a high event rate in those days, and this certainly qualified. There’s often a rush of ideas, with new twists and turns piling one on top of the other: a sense of a quickfire mind let loose. There’s technique to spare of course, but in service of an unusual imagination. Often on standards, the tune is almost, but not quite, overwhelmed.
All the tracks on this solo set show these qualities. This fine version of Round Midnight, is a particular favourite. It has the quality of gleeful spontaneity that shines through the whole set. Solal uses Monk’s most familiar arpeggio to anchor a mini-fantasia, with a satisfyingly original ending. There are innumerable great treatments of this tune – I think first of Stanley Cowell, Fred Hersch, or Geri Allen. This stands with any of them.
Solal’s style is so individual it’s hard to describe. Critics usually fall back on comparison: uniqueness exposes that tactic. You know from the song choices he loves Monk and Ellngton, and there’s something of Bud Powell’s fleetness, but not his glassy intensity. Writers usually settle for a few adjectives suggestive of playing that’s somehow elusive. The normally incisive Eric Thacker in The Essential Jazz Records talks of Solal’s “unclassifiable, adroit, cosmopolitain, pawky style”. I can’t do better. But still, pawky? A synonym for sly, and I do remember referring to Solal’s “sly virtuosity” in a live review once. But on reflection, I don’t think it’s right. Sly implies disguising one’s intentions. Yet the enjoyment here is not so much the listener not knowing what Solal is going to do next, but the feeling that he doesn’t either. The famous sound of surprise seems to extend to a player who delights in surprising himself.
The record – just 37 minutes on the old LP – is a single entry in a vast discography, covering solo sets, duos, trios, film scores and original works for big band. I haven’t caught up with much of it. He’s had moments of acclaim abroad, but Solal has remained in France for almost all of his career and his larger scale stuff, in particular, has had little attention. There are dozens of sessions now accessible via streaming, though, so some unfinished business to attend to there. Meanwhile, this one – reissued on CamJazz along with most items from the Soul Note catalogue – is still a treat to hear. There may have been better solo releases from Solal, or more beautifully recorded ones, but this remains a great introduction to an artist it’s always been a huge pleasure to encounter.
I recall hearing him in a trio in a club in Paris. Mid-set, sharing a remark with a friend – very quietly, I thought – I was silently shushed by what felt like everyone else in the place. Quite right too. And with a faithful audience like that, who needs to travel?
Why the No 6?
This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.
And I’m going to collect them all on this page.