Martial Solal’s concert at the Wigmore Hall was so intimate and personal that it felt like a piano recital for friends rather than a formal concert. He delighted with his dexterity, mental agility and keyboard gymnastics, all kept right up to speed by continual practice and an unquenchable musical curiosity, undimmed by his mere 83 years.
Solal’s repertoire is built on a raft of standards which he demolishes, deconstructs and rebuilds – often in utterly surprising ways; in a maelstrom of intense improvisation it is the merest hint that ultimately gives away the tune. These included the instantly recognisable, if not immediately placed – ‘Funny Valentine’ (with a sly echo of Teddy Bears’ Picnic), ‘The Shadow of Your Smile’, ‘Poinciana’, and ‘There’s a Small Hotel’, all beautifully interpreted with creative relish. ‘Caravan’ (Ellington/Tizol), to which he often returns, was succinctly shaken. Ellington and Strayhorn’s ‘Satin Doll’, towards the end of the concert, was picked apart as he scooped immeasurable depths of inspiration from its seemingly familiar structure – it was as though he’d pulled the keyboard off the Steinway to wring chordal surges and runs from its heart. His impish humour was never far away, whether he was explaining, “I composed a new tune on the train from Paris … Tea for Two”, or as he held a sustained note and followed its echo around the stage in appreciation of the instrument’s quality.
There were echoes of Waller’s skitterings, even a touch of barrel-house, as well as Tatum’s fluency and invention, but ultimately it was his own love of the music and its possibilities that were communicated so directly. In a sequence of encores demanded by both devotees and newcomers to his wizardry he broke off to declare that he was going to improvise, and summed up the tenor of the evening perfectly – “Just between you and me, I like to play the piano.” A joy.