Martial SOLAL (b.1927) Works for Piano and Two Pianos
Voyage en Anatolie (2011) [5:37]
Jazz Preludes (c. 1990) [15:05]
Exercice de Concert (co-written with Pascal Wetzel) (2011, based on an improvisation of 1994)
11 Études (1999) [20:46]
Ballade for two Pianos (1985)
Eric Ferrand-N’Kaoua (piano) Martial Solal (second piano)
rec. Auditorium Marcel Landowski, Paris, 2011. GRAND PIANO GP697 [53:47]
Martial Solal has claims to be regarded as the greatest of all European jazz pianists and is surely in what one might call the premier league of pianists in the history of jazz. Born in Algiers of French parents, his early piano lessons came from his mother who, as herself an opera singer, doubtless laid the foundations of that knowledge of the classical piano repertoire which is often evident in Solal’s jazz work. While he never goes in for Jacques-Loussier-like ‘jazzing’ of the classics (or even the creating of fully-fledged jazz improvisations on classical themes, as in Richie Beirach’s Round About Monteverdi or Giorgio Gaslini’s Schumnn Reflections), allusions to, and quotations from Bach, Chopin, Grieg and others can often be heard in Solal’s improvisations. His initial fascination with jazz grew from what he could hear on the radio during his upbringing in Algiers. He moved to Paris in 1950 and soon established himself on the thriving jazz scene there. He early demonstrated his stylistic range and facility, proving himself equally at home working with older musicians such as Django Reinhardt or Sidney Bechet, on the one hand, or with bop-influenced Americans such as Lucky Thompson, Kenny Clarke and Don Byas, on the other. Over his long career since then he has worked and recorded extensively, as a solo pianist, in duets with the great alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, with the avant-garde German pianist Joachim Kühn, and with violinist Didier Lockwood and trumpeter Dave Douglas, as well as in piano trios with bassists including Gary Peacock, Marc Johnson and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and drummers such as Daniel Humair, Paul Motian and Peter Erskine, as well as organizing, leading and recording with a Big Band. He has also written some twenty film scores (including that for Jean-Luc Godard’s first film À bout de souffle and Orson Welles’ The Trial). The range of his work, his command of almost every aspect of the jazz keyboard language, is astonishing – and yet he always remains very much an individual, with his own musical voice. During his long and productive career he has also found time to write a number of ‘classical’ works, including a concerto for piano and strings and compositions for bassoon and for prepared harpsichord. Now here is what I believe to be the first recording devoted to his ‘classical’ compositions for piano(s).
The jazz influence is never too far away, though Eric Ferrand - N’Kaoua’s approach is very much that of a classical pianist. He obviously understands and admires Solal’s music, but the effect is often rather over-studied. He doesn’t swing naturally – unlike the composer.
The first work on this CD, ‘Voyage en Anatolie’, belongs very much in the jazz arena, most notably in terms of the material it works with. The clue in the title which has nothing to do with Asia Minor. French jazz musicians sometimes refer to a particular set of chord changes, used as a basis for improvisation, as an ‘Anatole’. I remember someone suggesting to me, in a jazz club in Chambéry, that this was because French medical students used to refer to anatomical skeletons as ‘Anatoles’, the analogy then being that the chord sequence provided the ‘skeleton’ for improvisation. I don’t know whether that is true or not, but an ‘Anatole’ in French jazz is the name given to the 32–bar chord progression Anglophone jazz musicians refer to as the ‘rhythm changes’ (the changes of Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm'). These changes have provided the ‘skeleton’ for many jazz compositions (as well as for countless jazz improvisations), such as Thelonious Monk’s ‘Rhythm-a-Ning’, Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Salt Peanuts’, Charlie Parker’s ‘Dexterity’, Sonny Rollins’ ‘Oleo’ and Count Basie’s ‘Jumpin’ at the Woodside’. What Solal has done is to write a set of 13 variations (which he may well have originally improvised) on this chord sequence. The variations are played without a break. Eric Ferrand- N’Kaoua plays them with accuracy and a certain flair, but for those who know Solal’s own playing ‘something’ is missing.
Of the other pieces in the programme the most interesting are perhaps the ‘Jazz Preludes’ and the ‘Ballade for 2 Pianos’. The 7 Preludes are identified only by numbers and are essentially abstract in nature. All of them are brief, the shortest under two minutes in length, the longest almost three and a quarter minutes. Each is quirkily inventive and makes a self-contained and coherent whole, but is also pregnant with developmental possibilities (aptly enough, for pieces designated as preludes). In contrast, the 11 Études are more fully developed and less abstract (as indicated by titles such as ‘La Nonchalante’, ‘La Jazzifiante’, La Joyeuse’, ‘La Trépidante’ and ‘La Lancinante’.
In the ‘Ballade for 2 Pianos’ Martial Solal himself plays the first piano part, partnered by Ferrand-N’Kaoua, in a piece originally written for Katia and Marielle Labèque and recorded by them on their 1991 CD Love of Colours. There’s a greater sense of excitement here than in the solo piano pieces on the disc – in part because of the sheer vivacity of Solal’s playing, although on balance I am inclined to prefer the recording by the Labèque sisters, in which there is a greater sense of complementary dialogue between the two keyboards.
All in all this is an enjoyable, if not especially memorable or essential album, which will be valued most by those who already admire Solal the jazz pianist. I expect to listen to it again quite a lot in the future.