After his second number, octogenarian French pianist Martial Solal (above) stood up from the piano stool at King’s Place. Ever dapper, he did up the middle button on his jacket, and walked over to the microphone. First came a smiling apology for his English. Then a simple statement:
“These tunes are all standards. I only play standards,” still with a smile.
I noticed quite a few visual artists in the audience. I believe that they, above all people, will have understood the exact tone of that remark. It was said in the same matter-of-fact sense that Cezanne wrote, in his mid-sixties, in a letter to young Emile Bernard, that he simply “expresses himself in drawing and colour.” Or Klee, in his diary, ever the modest craftsman, describing a particularly good day: “I am a painter.”
Because Martial Solal as a solo improviser has an artistic method with this repertoire of standards which is unique and compelling. He has been living with them, living in them throughout his long life as a pianist . Sometimes he will reveal the tune, by direct quotation of a fragment, in the first few bars – for example “Here’s that Rainy Day” which opened the second half. In other numbers he buries the identity of the tune deep under thick Debussyan gouache-wash, or torrents of Art Tatum runs, or all sorts of other abstract material, and then eventually , chooses to bring a contour of the tune to the surface: “Body and Soul” was one of those. It’s called teasing. He’s having a lot of fun.
He is constantly playing a game with the audience’s ears. But he is also playing, in real-time, with the figurative material – the recognizable melodic contours of the tune. He’s getting the listener to ask a question about any note, chord, motif: is it a clue, a piece of melody, is itfigurative? Or is it decoration, a bit of abstract flotsam?
Cart me straight off to pseud’s corner, but here’s a blog post from a contemporary artist dealing with this dilemma of the figurative and the abstract.
Martial does all of this with sincerity, humour, artistry, and with an astonishingly agile piano technique for a man in his early eighties. I had wondered if the fingers had slowed since the (superb) live double album “Martial Solal Improvise Pour Radio France”from 1995, but, trusting the evidence of my ears on Thursday I couldn’t hear ANY degradation. The scheduled Jazz on 3 Broadcast (no date fixed yet) will give an opportunity to check this again.
Solal played a nice, cultured game with the audience at the end. He claimed to be choosing the numbers by consulting tiny cards in his pocket, and that after one last number he would run out, there could be no more. He duly returned to the stage, and showed off the empty pocket……
“Now I can improvise,” he explained with faux-naif boyish glee. At the end of this number he shut the piano lid. YBut that turned out to be another game: he still allowed himself to be lured back for another encore. My hope is that he’ll allow himself to be lured back by Serious for another concert.
And if they can do it, I also hope that the place will be rammed. He deserves nothing less.