Album review

Martial Solal – ‘Coming Yesterday’

Martial Solal – Coming Yesterday:  Live at Salle Gaveau 2019
(Challenge Records CR73516. Album review by Leonard Weinreich
)

After 92 years of surmounting life’s obstacles, Martial Solal has decided to throw in the towel. Born Jewish in Algeria in 1927 while the French were still running the country, the wartime anti-Semitic Vichy authorities prevented his attending school and music lessons. Unfazed by the Nazis, Solal educated himself by imitating music heard on the radio.

The airwaves he heard must have been jumping because, after settling in Paris in 1950, in no time he became first call piano player for the heavy hitters of jazz, regardless of style: Django Reinhardt, Sidney Bechet, Don Byas, Stan Getz and Lee Konitz. Crossing the Atlantic in 1963, he wowed the Newport Jazz Festival. And when he opened at Manhattan’s Hickory House club, queues wound around the block. Solal has appeared on some 135 albums and has been responsible for 40 movie scores. His solo appearances in London, at King’s Place in 2009 (reviewed here) and the following year at Wigmore Hall (reviewed here) were critical successes and totally sold out.

Almost a decade later in 2019, and after the concert recorded here, at Paris’s Salle Gaveau, he decided that this would be his last concert. As he says in his album sleeve notes: “when I walked onto the stage…I did not yet know that I would decide not to play piano anymore after this concert”. Fortunately, an expert team headed by artistic sound director Patrick Lerisset was on hand to record the proceedings.

Solal had always wanted his performances to appear very easy, even when the going was very difficult, although stressing that high-level maintenance of technique was impossible without daily dedication: “as long as you are gifted, if you spend a little time on it, if you listen to what was done before you, if you choose a path…progress is rapid, illusions are immense, and then walls arise, walls that you want to reach and overcome”.

For this final programme, he chose apparently conventional material or what he calls “indestructible” standards (including two examples universally imprinted on every memory: “Happy Birthday” and “Sir Jack”, an undisguised ‘Frere Jacques’). They serve a function: “…pretexts for expressing ideas, but with relaxed rules, the rubato being entitled to be cited as well as accelerations, atonality or the absence of a continuous tempo”.

“Indestructible” standards are Solal’s method of offering tantalising clues to navigate his performance. Familiar hints of melody and echoes reappear randomly throughout, seldom the same way twice. The warhorse jazz themes (Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin’s “I Can’t Get Started”; Juan Tizol’s “Caravan”; Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady; Youmans and Caesar’s Tea For Two; Ramirez’s Lover Man; De Paul, Johnson and Raye’s I’ll Remember April; Rodgers and Hart’s My Funny Valentine and “Have You Met Miss Jones”), provide his audience with a guide to appreciating and unlocking his art.

It might be fanciful, but this reviewer senses a visual dimension to his work. Solal the intellectual approaches his subject matter much in the manner of Cubist painters. Amongst flurries of notes, complete melodies are never clearly stated. Fragments of the whole are surveyed from multiple angles, each facet examined and revealed in different voicings and registers, altering perspective, colour and form. All magnificently placed because Solal is a master of time and space.

Yet another modern master, Paul Klee, described his own intricate, witty drawings as ‘taking a line for a walk’. Solal, eager to show the interconnectedness of everything, takes his tunes ‘for a walk’, sometimes strutting, sometimes ambling like a boulevardier, constantly bumping into familiar snatches of other melodies, frequently a brief conversation with an earlier song and then an unexpected departure towards a different direction. The piano is his canvas: in his Ellington medley, “Caravan”s oriental theme emerges from clusters of sounds (much like the pointilliste manner of Seurat) as if it were being gradually perceived through a Saharan heat haze and continues to collide with “Sophisticated Lady”, shards of both melodies reappearing in a continuum, interceding with later songs. All fine examples of what critic Whitney Balliett called “the sound of surprise”.

He revels in juxtapositions: his “Tea For Two” ends with a tag from Beethoven. The Parker/Harris bebop anthem, ‘Ornithology’, raises its head in “Happy Birthday”. In the space of a few bars, he might dart between Chopin, Satie, Debussy, Ravel and Monk, employing a raft of pianistic effects: stride, block chords, bebop phrases, bass end rumbles, modulations, whole tone runs and obscurely substituted chords. Solal is always serious but never solemn. Eternally playful and cavalier about conventional melodies or harmonies, he might insert them mischievously as fleeting landmarks: “I preferred a greater freedom, playing on the melting of keys, rhythms, duration (and) style”.

But after 70 years of devoting himself to his art, Solal decided enough was enough: “when energy is no longer available, it is better to stop”. As he said farewell to the audience at the end of this recital, he may or may not have actually made his decision; there were certainly no histrionics. Laying his fingers on the Steinway keyboard for the final time in public, he played a single resolving chord.

Just one. Finis.

LINK: Coming Yesterday at Challenge Records

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