A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to conduct a public Downbeat Blindfold Test with Martial Solal at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Orvieto, and to write a feature piece framed around the experience. On the occasion of Solal’s 85th birthday, I’m posting the article, and the raw transcripts of both the Blindfold Test and our subsequent conversation.
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Martial Solal (DownBeat Article & Public Blindfold Test, Orvieto, 2009):
On New Year’s Eve in Orvieto, Italy, Martial Solal, having just arrived in town, sat with his wife at a center table in the second-floor banquet room of Ristorante San Francisco, where a raucous cohort of musicians, personnel and guests of the Umbria Jazz Winter festival were eating, drinking and making merry. Solal quietly sipped mineral water and nibbled on his food. “It is difficult to dine here,” Solal said with a shrug, before departing to get his rest.
It seemed that the 81-year-old pianist would need it: His itinerary called for concerts on each of the first three days of 2009: a duo with Italian pianist Stefano Bollani, a solo recital and a duo with vibraphonist Joe Locke. On the duo encounters, Solal opted for dialogue, accommodating the personalities of the younger musicians. With Locke, who played torrents of notes, he comped and soloed sparingly but tellingly, switching at one point from a rubato meditation into Harlem stride, before a transition to another rhythmic figure. It was his fifth encounter with Bollani, who is apt to launch a musical joke at any moment, and Solal played along, indulging the younger artist in a round of “musical piano benches,” riposting with mischievous jokes of his own.
“Martial is humane,” Bollani said a few days later. “He could be my grandfather, but one good thing about jazz is that you do not feel the age difference. His humor is more snobbish, serious, French—or British. I always thought of him as a sort of Buster Keaton. His face tells you nothing, but the hands are doing something funny.
“We decided to improvise freely,” Bollani continued. “He always does something you don’t expect. But it’s easy for me to follow immediately an idea that he starts, not only because he’s a master, but I love the way he plays. He is the only piano player in the world who has no Bill Evans influence, and he has a huge knowledge of all the stride piano players—Art Tatum first of all, but also Teddy Wilson or Willie ‘the Lion’ Smith. But he doesn’t play them as a quotation. He plays thinking as Art Tatum was thinking, but in a modern way.”
In Orvieto, Solal clarified that he continues to acknowledge no technical limits in navigating the piano, playing with undiminished authority on the solo concert, as he does on the new Live At The Village Vanguard (Cam Jazz), recorded during an October 2007 engagement. He does not rely on patterns, but uses tabula rasa improvisation as a first principle, elaborating on the vocabulary of his predecessors—in addition to Tatum and Wilson, they include Earl Hines, Erroll Garner, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, not to mention Ravel and Debussy. He addresses forms as a soliloquizing philosopher plays with ideas; within the flow, you can hear him contemplate the possibilities of a single note, what happens when he transposes a line into a different octave, the relationship of an interval to a rhythmic structure. He deploys the songs played by his American antecedents as the raw materials to tell his stories, their content burnished by encyclopedic harmonic erudition, a lexicon of extended techniques and a multi-perspective sensibility not unlike that of a Cubist painter.
“It was incredible,” said pianist Helio Alves, in Orvieto for the week with Duduka Da Fonseca’s Samba Jazz Sextet. “He sat and played, as though he didn’t think about anything, but it was as though he’d written out everything in his head, so well-put-together and arranged, so much information. [His technique is incredible.] He’s an advanced classical player; he sounded like all the jazz players plus all the 20th-century composers. You could hear Bartók, Debussy—everything.”
Solal had expressed mild concern about how he would fare in fulfilling his other Orvieto obligation, a public “Blindfold Test” prior to the solo concert. “I will recognize nothing,” he said, adding that it might be difficult for him to state his opinions in English to an Italian audience. I assured him that a translator would be present, and that the point of the exercise was less correct identification of the musicians than responses that elaborated his esthetic. “I will come up with something,” he said.
As the event transpired at a time when no other concerts conflicted, many of the musicians performing at the festival were among the full house at Sala dei Quattrocento, an upstairs performance space in Palazzo del Popolo, a 13th century structure that served eight centuries ago as Orvieto’s meeting hall.
The leadoff track was “Where Are You,” a standard that Solal has recorded, performed by Ahmad Jamal (In Search Of, Dreyfus, 2002), who, like Solal, conceptualizes the piano as a virtual orchestra. Within two minutes, Solal made a dismissive “turn it off” gesture.
“I don’t know who is playing, and it’s not so important,” he said. “I had the feeling it is someone who played the piano well in the past, 20 years ago maybe, and stopped practicing since. He is trying to do things that he has in his mind, but his fingers can’t play it as he did before.”
Told it was Jamal, he elaborated. “He played beautifully 40 years ago. Each time I met him, I knew he did not practice. So he has the same story to tell, but he can’t express it. I must add that he is still a marvelous stylist. I always admire people who have a personal way to express music, and he is one of them. Now, this happens to many pianists who are getting old. They stop practicing at home—except me. For instance, maybe 40 years ago, I heard Earl Hines, who was a great pianist, and he couldn’t play any more. I was crying. They should do like me. Practice every morning. Except today.”
Solal likes to play both Duke Ellington’s songs and “Body And Soul,” so it seemed a good idea to offer Ellington’s trio meditation on the Johnny Green classic (Piano In The Foreground, Columbia, 1961).
“There is a TV channel called Euro News, and they have a wordless sequence called ‘No Comment,’” Solal stated after 90 seconds. “That’s what I would say about this record. It can be about 1,245 different pianists, but none I can name. I’m afraid now.”
Told it was Ellington, he said, “I still have no comment. I love Duke Ellington, but not this. This record was probably a Sunday morning before he shaved. I never heard Ellington like this, as a soloist. I’m surprised. I know that in America it’s normal to say, ‘This one is marvelous, that one is terrific’—everybody is beautiful. But in Europe we have the right to say, ‘I love Ellington, but this record is no good.’
Solal looked at me. “I think this gentleman hates me,” he said, “because he played for me two records by people I love, but not their better record.”
Since Solal continues to play duo with Lee Konitz, a partner in different contexts since they met in 1965, it seemed imperative to play him a collaboration of Konitz with Lennie Tristano—an energetic quintet version of Konitz’s “Subconscious-Lee” from a televised date from the Half Note in 1964, with Warne Marsh sharing the front line (Continuity, Jazz Records, 1964). It was an ill-advised selection.
“The drummer plays a little loud,” Solal said. “Is that Lee Konitz? It’s probably an old record. He played excellently then, but today he plays better—differently. I don’t know who the piano player was. European, French, American, Italian…”
“So it’s not Cecil Taylor. It’s not Art Tatum. I have a long list of who they are not. Because of the noise of the rhythm section it’s difficult to judge the pianist. But this is not a record that I am going to buy when I go out.”
Told it was Tristano, Solal was not pleased. “You chose exactly the record where they are not at their top. I hope when you choose one of mine one day, you will ask me before. Lennie Tristano is one of the greatest stylists of the piano also. The four pianists you chose are each in their category alone, I could say. They are so themselves that you should recognize it on the first note. But I’m no good!”
Next up was Hank Jones performing Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight” (Bop Redux, Muse, 1978), another staple of Solal’s repertoire. “I know the melody—but I don’t know the words,” Solal joked. “When I first arrived in New York, they told me that in New York there were 8,000 piano players. This makes the exercise difficult. I am not sure if this is a pianist from New York.” He paused. “By the way, I wish that you would make me hear some non-American musicians, because they exist, too.”
The crowd applauded vigorously.
“No, I am not a political man,” Solal added. “But maybe this is one of them. It’s not Monk himself playing this. He has too much technique for Monk. He has not enough technique for Tatum. He is somewhere in the middle of different influences. There are so many excellent pianists in New York.”
It was time to showcase French pianist Jean-Michel Pilc romping through Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser” in kaleidoscopic fashion (New Dreams, Dreyfus, 2006).
“I’m sure I know him, but I can’t find the name,” Solal said. “I like the energy—the sense of jazz and energy and good feeling.”
Afterward, he said, “I almost thought Jean-Michel. He is too good to be French. This is the best record I’ve heard yet. This pianist is crazy, and that’s what I like in music—but with a good sense of jazz and feeling. I am happy this is Jean-Michel, because I like him. I like Duke Ellington, too. But as a pianist, Pilc is above.”
Solal has frequently played Dizzy Gillespie’s classic “A Night in Tunisia,” so next up was McCoy Tyner’s solo version (Jazz Roots, Telarc, 2000). Solal could not identify him. “I was thinking of Michel Petrucciani, but I don’t know. There are some good ideas and then mistakes in the approach, the way he approaches the piano.”
After the track ended he said, “I like McCoy Tyner, too. But he is better with his trio than alone. Almost every piano player in jazz wants to play alone, and it’s a difficult exercise. McCoy played a lot of concerts as a soloist, and sometimes it is fantastic when he is detaché, and sometimes he makes stupid … I mean, things not as good or interesting.”
Between 1957 and 1963, Solal, who held a long sinecure as house pianist at Club Saint-Germain in Paris, often played opposite Bud Powell. The next track was Powell’s third take of “Tea For Two” on a 1950 trio date with Ray Brown and Buddy Rich for Norman Granz. It is often regarded as Powell’s homage to Tatum, Solal’s other pianistic hero, who had recorded his own unparalleled inventions on the line a generation before.
“Is it Bud Powell?” he asked. “It is easy to recognize him, because he has almost one way to play. He was influenced by my favorite musician, Charlie Parker.”
Asked whether he came to know Powell well during their mutual proximity, Solal said, “Many nights he was asking me, ‘Bring me a beer, please.’ That’s about the conversation I had with him. When he came to Paris, he was already in bad shape. But I judge him on what he did before he came to Paris. He had a fantastic way to play chords, strongly and on the 10 fingers.”
Solal reached a crossroads in 1963, the last of his dozen years at Club Saint-Germain, which hired him one year after he moved from Algiers, Algeria, his hometown. He arrived at 22, a few months after Parker hit town for a jazz festival whose other participants included Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron and Sidney Bechet.
“Many people were playing like Bird then,” Solal recalled, referencing gigs with James Moody, who lived in Paris until 1953, and jam sessions with Gillespie. “Bebop is where it started with me and jazz. I listened deeply to Bud, but early I understood that to become unique, you can’t listen and copy. I had masters in my mind, but I wanted to know everyone and forget them, so I could turn my back and start to be myself.”
That Solal fully established his tonal personality during these years is evident on a pair of mid-’50s recordings for French Vogue—a crisp 1954 trio date with bassist Joe Benjamin and drummer Roy Haynes, and a 1956 solo recital on which he finds a way to synthesize the language of Tatum and Powell into his own argot. With his post-1957 rhythm section of drummer Kenny Clarke and bassist Pierre Michelot, he interacted with the likes of Konitz, Bechet, Don Byas, Lucky Thompson and, as Solal put it, “almost every musician, mostly American, coming on tour in Europe, who came to sit in with us.”
In this context, Solal found his identity outside of bebop, as “a child of middle jazz.” Ellington and Oscar Peterson heard him, and told Newport Jazz Festival impresario George Wein, who invited him to the 1963 edition. Solal crossed the Atlantic for the gig, then—booked by Joe Glaser, Louis Armstrong’s manager—settled into an extended gig at Manhattan’s Hickory House with bassist Teddy Kotick and drummer Paul Motian.
“Glaser wanted me to stay, and life became easy,” Solal said. “My first week in New York, I had my cabaret card, my union card. I had a personal problem, or I would have stayed. I would have become American. But I did the wrong thing. I left after four months. I promised to come back the next November. He had a contract with Japan, and then London House in Chicago. But I never showed up. He was angry. It was a mistake. Next year he called me again to go to Monterey Jazz Festival, and then I came maybe 12 or 15 times, but over 40 years.”
Over the years, Solal had developed his skills as a composer, recording a number of projects for Vogue, and in 1959 he was asked to write the score for Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (A Bout De Souffle), a film that had as radical an impact on cinema as Ornette Coleman’s Atlantic recordings of that same year had on jazz. Resigned to the fact that he would live in Europe, Solal continued scoring films until “the cinema didn’t call me any more. Jazz was finished. They were more interested in rock and songs and pop music.” Solal continued to gig as well, flirting with the freedom principle on a few occasions, but never moving too far away from his roots in “middle jazz.” Still, he remarked, “a child will grow disobedient.”
“From the beginning, jazz for me was American,” Solal maintained. “Even if in Europe now, they say there is a European jazz, this is not the point. I want to play jazz from the original, but with my conception; my ideas can be different, but I don’t want to turn my back to jazz. I am interested in harmony above everything. Harmony changed the sense of the line. The same line with different chords is not the same line any more.”
In cinema, Godard loved to make use of the jump-cut, a visual analogy to Solal’s penchant for making instant transitions in a piece. Or the notion of montage might apply to the way Solal, in an improvisation, references and plays with five or six different themes. But Solal did not incorporate cinema or other media into his musical aesthetic.
“Nothing could influence me,” Solal responded. “I was 32 when I did Bout De Souffle. It was a little late to have a new mind. We are influenced by everything around us. I get everything in my mind, and often I don’t know how I translate it.
“My wife is a painter, and I am interested in painting,” he continued. “But when I see a Renoir or a Rembrandt, I can’t say I am going to do this in music. I like some painters of this period, but I don’t like painting that’s very abstract. Like in my music, I like a mixture of modern and traditional. I don’t like art that forgets everything that happened before. When free-jazz came, I was not against free-jazz. I understood that the movement was necessary. But the best way is to use everything that exists. I have been interested in contemporary music for years, and I’ve played with different contemporary composers. But the past is necessary for the future.
The record by Bud Powell you played yesterday, when was it made?” Solal asked. “I have a record where he plays much stronger than that. I like to judge anyone on what he can do the best.”
Solal still works hard to meet that standard. “As a pianist he has no limits,” said Dado Moroni, the Italian pianist who played in Orvieto with Locke’s quartet. “He treats it like an athlete in training—to be in shape, you have to practice. That’s what he does. You can hear it in his touch, the clarity with which he executes his ideas.”
“Like every honest pianist,” Solal responded to Moroni’s observation, “not more. But if you want to be honest with the audience, you have to present yourself in the best possible condition.”
In describing the particulars of his regimen, Solal illuminated the world view that differentiates his tonal personality from such antecedents as Monk and Powell, who, according to testimony from Barry Harris and Walter Davis, Jr., practiced by immersing themselves in one song exhaustively over a six-to-eight-hour span.
“I never play a tune at home,” Solal said. “I should have done it maybe. If I play five choruses on ‘Stella By Starlight,’ I have enough for the day. I want to keep fresh for a concert. Everything has to be spontaneous.
“I must practice a minimum of 45 minutes, or I can’t play right,” he continued. “I practiced four or five hours a day when it was time to do it, between my 50s and 70. At home, I practice stupidly, like a student, to get my muscles in good shape. I play an exercise with the left hand and I improvise in the right hand. These things don’t go together. It’s a different key, different tempo. Half of me is playing the exercise, half of me is playing anything. That’s the way to independence of both hands.”
Solal pointed to his temple. “But the music is here,” he said. “I don’t want to lose anything, but I don’t want to improve again.”
The mention of Monk led to a discussion on technique. “Monk never lost technique,” Solal said. “He never had technique. If Monk one Monday morning woke up, went to the piano and played like Tatum, there is not Monk any more. He had his sound because of the lack of technique. So the lack of technique is not automatically bad. But to lose the technique is bad, because when you lose technique, you still play what you have in your mind. You will play the same thing, but you miss two notes of every three.
“But I have been influenced by Monk. The way he thinks about the music, not note-by-note, but the way he was free about certain rules of the music interested me a lot. I love anyone who has personality, a strong style, le passion d’etre.”
It’s complex to operate by “pure art” imperatives, as Solal does, and also sustain a career. He gives the audience familiar songs. “There is maybe too much information in my music for the audience,” Solal said. “If you want to love it, you should listen to one or two tunes at one time, then two tunes the day after. Some years ago, I was playing freely, no standards, and the public was not with me. I love standards, and also I want to prove that if you have enough imagination, you can make them new every day. I’m never tired of ‘Body And Soul’ and ‘Round Midnight,’ because you can put all the music in the history of music in it.
“That’s how it is in my trio,” he continued, referring to his unit with the Parisian twins Francois and Louis Moutin on bass and drums, respectively. “I can go anywhere, and I know that they will try to go in the same direction. Nothing is decided, except the melody we’ll use. We can stop, we can slow down, we can change key. Everything can happen with them.”
When Solal said “everything,” he meant it. “Including contemporary ideas, or conceptions of Stravinsky or Bartók, our greatest composers, is not a bad thing for jazz,” he said. “Jazz should include everything. But we must never forget the essential of jazz, which is a way to express the note, a conception of rhythm.
“I don’t wish for anything anymore—just to continue as long as possible. When I can’t move my fingers normally, I will stop. I would be too unhappy.”
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Ahmad Jamal, “Where Are You” (from IN SEARCH OF, Dreyfuss, 2002) (Jamal, piano; James Cammack, bass; Idris Muhammad, drums
first of all, I must say that my French is excellent, my English is poor, and my Italian is awful, so I will try a little English—maybe you will understand it better. I hope so. In any case this gentleman in the red shirt will. As for this record, I really don’t know who is playing, and it’s not so important. What I can say, I had the feeling it is someone who had played well the piano in the past years, twenty years ago maybe, and he stopped practicing since. I mean, he is trying to do things that he has in his mind, but his fingers can’t play it as he did before. I don’t know. That’s my first answer. Now, to give a name to this, I can’t. But maybe this gentleman will help me. I was going to tell it [Ahmad Jamal], but it’s exactly what I think. He played beautifully from 40 years ago. Each time I met him, I knew he did not practice. So he has the same story to tell, but he can’t express it. I guess he’s getting old. But I must add that he is still a marvelous stylist. I always admire people who have a personal way to express music, and he is one of them. Now, this happens to many pianist who are getting old. They stop practicing at home—except me, I mean. For instance, some maybe forty years ago or fifty years ago, I don’t know, when I was little like this, I heard Earl Hines. Earl Hines was a great pianist, and he was playing in Antibes Joan Les Pins, and I couldn’t believe it was… He couldn’t play any more. I was crying. So they should do like me. Practice every morning. Except today.
Duke Ellington, “Body and Soul” (from PIANO IN THE FOREGROUND, Columbia, 1961/2004) (Ellington, piano; Aaron Bell, bass; Sam Woodyard, drums)
[AFTER 1½ MINUTES] All right. There is a TV channel (I don’t know if you can catch it in Italy) which is called Euro News, and they have sequences with no words—they call it “No Comment.” That’s exactly what I would say about this record. I have nothing to say. No comment. I really don’t know who it can be. It can be about twelve hundred and forty-five different pianists, but no one which I have a name. Who was it? I’m afraid now. [It was Duke Ellington. An album called Piano in the Foreground, and he played many standards on it.] I still have no comment. I love Duke Ellington, as everyone here I guess, but not this… This record was probably a Sunday morning before he shaved. I don’t know. [But you know, you can love someone and don’t like him one day or one minute. On this record, I don’t recognize him. [TP: May I ask you when you first listened to Duke Ellington?] Well, I don’t know. Probably 29th of August, 1940, at 12. No, to be honest, I discovered Duke Ellington late in my life, probably when I was already 25 or more. But I never heard him like this, as a soloist. Honestly, I’m very surprised at what I heard. I know that in America it’s normal to say, “Oh, this one is marvelous, this one is excellent, that one is terrific”—everybody is beautiful. But I think in Europe we have the right to say, “I love Ellington, but this record is no good.” [SOAVE] I have another story about Duke Ellington. When I first met him in person, it was in New York in 1963. He came to the club in which I was playing, and after the set he comes to me and says, “Man, you are awful.” [owful] So I didn’t know exactly the sense of “awful” because in English you can say “awful”-good or “awful”-bad. So for one or two minutes, I was like this. So a friend of mine said “awful” meant “good.” I think this gentleman hates me, because he played for me already two records by people I love, but not their better record.
Chick Corea, “It Could Happen To You” (#8) (from SOLO PIANO: STANDARDS Stretch, 2000) (Corea, piano)
[AFTER 4 MINUTES] I am quite sure I am going to have zero again at this. For me, it could be a mixture of different people. I heard some Art Tatum things, I heard some Oscar Peterson, I heard a few bars of Bill Evans once in a while, but the ensemble I couldn’t be quite sure. I liked the performance. When it immediately started, I thought this is a good pianist. But I don’t know who it is. [[TP: It was Chick Corea.] If you don’t know the record you can’t find it. Because we can hear different influences—the ones I mentioned for sure. I have one record of him, only one, and not that one, so I couldn’t tell. I must say also that I am not listening to many records. I have at home hundreds of records, not yet opened. [Chick Corea, as Ahmad Jamal and Duke, is a wonderful musician. How can you say anything about them? But I have some feelings that I am here to express. [Also, Chick Corea can be quite himself. But in this record, I felt many influences.
Lennie Tristano, “Sub-Consciouslee” (from CONTINUITY, Jazz Records , 1964) (Tristano, piano, composer)
I don’t know the name of the drummer, but he plays a little loud for me. I’m not sure about Lee Konitz. Is that him? But it’s probably an old record. [TP: It’s an location recording, in a club.] From when?  That’s what I said, “old.” He plays better today, differently. He played excellent already, of course, but now he’s become better. The sound is… Anyway, I don’t know who he was playing with, the piano player—I can’t give a name. A European, French, American, Italian… [Italian-American] Well, I have nothing against Italians. No, to the contrary, there are a lot of beautiful musicians in this country. [No, he was American.] Italian-American. So it’s not Cecil Taylor. It’s not Art Tatum. I have a long list of who they are not. [Did you like the pianist?] I’m not sure, really, because of the noise of the rhythm section it’s difficult to judge. But this is not a record that I am going to buy when I go out. [SOAVE] So? [Lennie Tristano] I think you chose exactly the record where they are not at their top. I think. I hope when you will choose one of mine one day, you will ask me before. Lennie Tristano is one of the greatest stylists of the piano also. The four pianists you choose are each in their category alone, I could say. They are so themselves that you should recognize it on the first note. But I tell you, I’m no good. [SOAVE] Who was the drummer, by the way? [Nick Stabulas] I don’t know him. [He played in the ‘50s with Phil Woods, with Konitz…] I think that probably was the time when drummers started to change the way they play. There was a time in the ‘60s when drums was not any more a rhythm section, but something more. On this record, they are something more. On this record, with this sound, I had the feeling that the drummer wanted to be more than a drummer, considering the time…the ‘60s. [SOAVE]
Hank Jones, “Round Midnight” (from BOP REDUX, Muse, 1978) (Jones, piano; George Duvivier, bass; Ben Riley, drums)
[AFTER 3 MINUTES] I know the melody. But I don’t know the words. Once more… When I first went to New York, when I arrived there, they told me that in New York there was 8,000 piano players. [SOAVE] So this makes the exercise very difficult. I am not sure if this is a pianist from New York. By the way, I wish that you would make me hear some musicians non-American, because they exist, too. [SOAVE] [APPLAUSE] No, I am not a political man. But maybe this one is one of them. Really, I have no idea. He is good. Of course. I am not sure until what point he is good. “Good” means nothing. “Hello, how are you?” That means nothing. “Good” is nothing. Excellent, the best, awful good, awful bad… Nuance. So about this one, I don’t know. It’s not Monk himself playing this. He has too much technique for Monk. He has not enough technique for Tatum. He is somewhere in the middle of different influences. I don’t know. In New York, there are so many excellent pianists. In America. In Europe also, but more in the States. So it could be…I could make a list—Paul Bley or… I know it’s not Bill Evans, for instance. It’s not Teddy Wilson. It’s not me. [Hank Jones] Ah, Hank Jones. Yeah, why not? Don’t tell anyone, but I maybe play with him as a duet next summer. I will be the youngest of the two. Hank Jones is 90 years old today, and he is still fantastic.
Jean-Michel Pilc, “Straight, No Chaser” (from NEW DREAMS, Dreyfus, 2006) (Pilc, piano; Thomas Bramerie, bass; Ari Hoenig, drums)
I’m sure I know him, but I can’t find the name. Anyway, I like the energy, the mise en place. The sense of jazz and energy and good feeling. But I don’t know. I couldn’t give a name yet. I’ll give it to you in five minutes. [Jean-Michel Pilc] I almost thought Jean-Michel… He is too good to be French, in my opinion. To me, until now…this is the best record I heard until now. This pianist is quite crazy. That’s what I like in music—sort of crazy. But with a good sense of jazz and feeling… [SOAVE] In one minute I am going to telephone him. I am very happy this is Jean-Michel, because I like him. I like Duke Ellington, too. But as a pianist, Pilc is above. Has Jean Jean-Michel Pilc played in Orvieto yet? Then you should call him immediately. Do it now because he is not too expensive yet.
McCoy Tyner, “Night In Tunisia” (from JAZZ ROOTS, Telarc, 2000) (Tyner, piano; Dizzy Gillespie, composer)
I’m sorry I don’t know him. Once more. I had many names in my head, but to say one name is… I was thinking of Petrucciani for one minute. It’s not him. I don’t know. I really don’t know. Different names, but I’m sure it’s all wrong. [SOAVE] And the winner is? [TP: How did you like the performance?] well, there are some good sections and some mistakes in different sections. I mean, good ideas and then mistakes in the approach, the way they approach the piano. Sometimes he tried, sometimes too heavy… Well, it’s not excellent all the way along, but it’s good, of course. A good pianist. [McCoy Tyner] Well, I like McCoy Tyner, too. But I meant what I said. He is better with his trio than alone. Since a few years, almost every piano player in jazz wants to play alone, without the rhythm section, and it’s a very difficult exercise. McCoy played a lot of concerts as a soloist, and so many of them on TV, and I feel sometimes it is fantastic when he is detacheé, and sometimes he makes stupid…I mean, things not as good or interesting. There are too many differences between the bad and the good. But he is still one of the stylists. And I repeat, I like only musicians who have a personal way.
Bud Powell, “Tea for Two (Take 3)” (from THE GENIUS OF BUD POWELL, Verve, 1950/1988) (Powell, piano; Ray Brown, bass; Buddy Rich, drums)
Well, maybe I’ll have one point. Is it Bud Powell? Ah! Thank you. It is very easy to recognize him, because I would say he has almost one way to play. He always played his phrases the way he expressed… It’s very easy to find. It could be a compliment or the contrary, but in my mind, it’s really a compliment. He himself was very much influenced by my favorite musician, who was Charlie Parker. Bud Powell is excellente, of course. [SOAVE] [Bud Powell lived in Paris for many years. Did you get to know him?] Yes. Many nights he was asking me, “Bring me a beer, please.” That’s about the conversation I had with him. [SOAVE] When he came to Paris, he was already in bad shape, and he was drinking too much, of course. He had his wife behind him, but he was drinking beer and beer and beer. But I judge him on what he did before he came to Paris, and the first record was fantastic. [Did you listen to these records when they came out?] I have one of this that’s an earlier record. He has a fantastic way to play chords, so strongly and on the ten fingers together.
Jacky Terrason, “Parisian Thoroughfare” (from SMILE, Blue Note, 2002) (Terrason, piano; Sean Smith, bass; Eric Harland, drums; Bud Powell, composer)
I would say Brad Mehldau. No? He has a lot of things in common with him. Who can play like that? I don’t know. He’s a young pianist, though. Immediately after the melody, he started with something very, very interesting for a few bars. [SOAVE] Rhythmically it’s very interesting. I don’t know. Do you know it? Ah, Jacky Terrason. Jacky can be very good, too. [TP: You asked for non-Americans.] I am happy for you. You know how to choose a pianist without considering their nationality. But I must say that, as well as Jacky Terrason, Jean-Michel Pilc…they live in America. I am very glad to hear Jacky playing that way. I like him much better with a trio than a solo. I told you before, the solo is very difficult. Except for a very few, I think something is missing in their left hand.
* * *
Martial Solal (Jan 3, 2009–Orvieto):
TP: Can we speak about things you’re doing now, what your professional activity is like. Is it somewhat like this weekend? You come to places and do solos, duos? Are you working within all the different areas you’ve done over the years.
SOLAL: Well, the answer is very simple. I did what I did for all my life, trying to play different organization of concerts. Most of my concerts in the last few years are alone—solo concerts. But I still love to play with somebody else, of course, and mostly with my trio, and sometimes with people like Joe today, or Lee Konitz, who I played with many times this last year. Once in a while I write music, as I always did. My next record will be in March with a guitar player, Bireli Lagrene. We’re going to make a duo record, followed by some concerts in the year. That’s about all.
TP: Do you still do orchestral projects? Write music for ensembles?
SOLAL: Oh, you mean large orchestra?
TP: Large ensembles of whatever size.
SOLAL: well, not at the moment. I have a lot of music written already, which I record or not. But there is no project. My dream would be to play very often with a very large orchestra. The biggest orchestra I had under my hand was the National Orchestra of Radio France, plus my big band, which was a real nice combination. But the bigger the band is, the more difficult it is to make the things together. When we have a trio already, it is difficult to make a rehearsal. Imagine for 120 musicians! So it’s not what I have in projects for the next month at least. But who knows? For my next project, this is duet, guitar and piano, which I have never done before.
TP: On your duo with Toots Thielemans, did he play guitar or harmonica?
SOLAL: True, and I did a guitar with guitar and piano a long time ago, with Jimmy Raney. It was a nice meeting in Paris when we did that. I don’t know. I did everything, so I don’t wish anything more. Just continue as long as possible.
TP: So whatever comes along, you’re prepared for it and… When you’re playing solo piano… You spoke about wanting an orchestra. You have such an orchestral approach to the piano, as though the piano itself were an orchestra, and you’re extracting all the sounds and colors. Is your conception of solo piano an orchestral conception?
SOLAL: Well, in a way, yes. I think if I never had written music for big band, I would play differently on the piano. When I play alone, I am like an orchestra. In some phrases, to my mind, are for trumpet. Some should be played by saxophones. I am thinking like this. But not in details, but the concept is this. Music should be including everything. I play like if I was writing.
TP: Around what time of your life did you start writing projects for bands that were larger than combos? I know there are things from the mid ‘50s on Vogue records.
SOLAL: Yeah. That’s about the beginning. Well, a little earlier, I was playing in a sort of varieties band. We played different kinds of music. And once in a while, the bandleader let me write a piece for the band, so I learned that way, by myself. I never had a teacher to write music. So I lose some years just by trying and trying, and the first Vogue record, at that time I was ready to write. But before this, I tried and tried and tried.
TP: Did you start writing before you moved to Paris, or were you still in Algiers?
SOLAL: No-no, in Paris. In Algiers I didn’t do anything but play piano.
TP: May I take you back a bit and ask you about your early years.
SOLAL: Yes. But you know, I just wrote a book in which the whole beginning of my life is… Maybe I could send it to you. It’s in French, but maybe you can find somebody to…
TP: I just have a few questions, and of course I can mention the book.
SOLAL: Let me have your address, so I’ll mail you the book. The first part is my enfance…
TP: Youth or adolescence… Let me see if I’m right in what I know about your background. Your parents were French, both of them…
TP: …who lived in Algiers. Your mother sang opera?
SOLAL: Singer. Yes.
TP: What did your father do?
TP: And you’re half-Jewish?
TP: Both parents are Jewish.
TP: And your mother taught you to play piano?
SOLAL: Well, I think I decided myself. We had a piano at home… This is in the book. You will see it, too. But as soon as I could reach the keyboard, I was trying like this, repeating the music I was hearing, the melodies and things. Then I said, “I should have a teacher,” so they gave me a teacher.
TP: You were studying classical music, and then you heard jazz. You were hearing Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller…
SOLAL: Yeah, that’s much later. For ten years, I was just playing like a child, learning piano. Then I discover music… It will be easier if I send you the book. Everything will be detailed.
TP: I understand. My question is how you found jazz. Who was playing you those records?
SOLAL: That’s simple. With my parents, every Sunday we were going to a brasserie, a sort of café with music, with a band, and in this place was the only good musician in the city. He gave himself an American name, by the way. He called himself Lucky Starway. When I heard him playing not jazz, but songs which everybody knew, with different notes…a little different, which to me gave the sense of freedom, a new possibility to change some notes of the famous melodies. So for me, it was something and I was very interested. I went to him, and said, “What are you doing? I would like to learn with you.” So he became my teacher, and maybe two years after I became his pianist, the piano player in his band. So he teach me what he could teach. What he had in his mind was records of… He was a saxophone player, first of all. Was Ben Webster, mostly Coleman Hawkins, and some records of Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, and so-and-so. So with this side, I started to be interested in jazz.
TP: Did people like Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter ever make it to Algiers when they lived in Europe in the ‘30s?
SOLAL: No. Only one came while I was still there—Don Byas.
TP: That was after the war.
SOLAL: No, I don’t think so…
TP: He came with the Don Redman Band after the war, in ‘46…
SOLAL: Maybe right after the war. Or, in Algiers, the war for us was finished in ‘42, when the Americans and English landed there. So for us, it was something like the end of the war. So I don’t know when Don Byas, in ‘42 or ‘45. But around then.
TP: But then you played with Don Byas… Oh, it was later.
SOLAL: In Paris.
TP: One other question about Algiers. Were you at all in touch with the Arab population, with the African aspect of culture in Algiers, or were you separated from it?
SOLAL: Not much. Well, everybody was more friendly. There was no animosité…
BARBARA: No antagonism.
SOLAL: No antagonism.
BARBARA: Living separate.
SOLAL: Each stayed in his corner, you see.
TP: But I’m wondering if you were exposed at all to the culture? It was a colonial setting, which sometimes could be more like the homeland than the homeland, and sometimes people who grow up in those environments assimilate the native culture. I’m wondering if that happened to you as a young person in Algeria.
SOLAL: I can’t say that. Because we have only one radio station. On this radio station was playing only songs, and once in a while a classical concert. Of course, I could hear some local music also, but it didn’t go in my mind, because I was not interested. From the beginning, I always liked classical music and jazz, and I am very sectaire…
SOLAL: I won’t say, like, every music is good, every music is nice. No, to me, only two musics are interesting—classical and jazz. The rest goes here, it comes out here.
TP: Who were the first classical composers that you played?
SOLAL: Well, the one my teachers learned to me, the very first…maybe Bach or Chopin. But the moderne…my teacher didn’t know it, like Ravel, Debussy, and Stravinsky. This I learned by myself after. But from my teacher I just learned general music, mostly by Chopin, Bach, Mozart of course.
TP: were you also interested in twelve-tone, Schoenberg…
SOLAL: I was interested in this, but much later. At this time, nobody knew what it was. There, I mean. Oh my English is… Yesterday, I was much better than today, I guess.
TP: Did you have piano heroes? When you were learning jazz, did you assimilate styles? I know you listened to Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson. Did you try to play like them, or was it a different process?
SOLAL: I don’t know exactly how I get to a certain personal way. But I had many influences when I was very young. The main influence was first Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller. Much later, I discovered Art Tatum, and I didn’t know Bud Powell at all—I discovered him when I was in Paris. The big discovery for me was the music of Charlie Parker, which I understood was a complete change in the atmosphere of jazz music. I am sure this is really a turn in my…
BARBARA: A big turn, a big change.
SOLAL: Of course, I started to like and be influenced by him, Bud Powell, and some others. But this was in the early ‘50s. I couldn’t spend my life by playing like these people. I was not the one who listened, who liked to listen and copy, listen and copy. I just wanted to know everyone and forget them, the most I could. So little by little, I started to be different, and different experiences with a lot of people…
TP: I guess Charlie Parker got to Paris the year before you got there…
TP: He got there in ‘49.
SOLAL: Yes. I was not there yet.
TP: But he made an impact. When you got there, I guess many people were talking about him.
SOLAL: We had records. And many people were playing like him. For instance, I played sometimes with James Moody in the early ‘50s, who was more or less influenced by Parker. And I had the opportunity to play jam sessions with a lot of musicians, like Dizzy Gillespie, whom I played some concerts with, and other people coming from the new bebop way. That’s where it really started with me and jazz.
TP: So you developed your vocabulary more through playing it than through listening to Bud Powell’s records and hearing…
SOLAL: Well, for six months I had been trying to listen to Bud! But very early I understood that to become unique, you can’t copy too many people. You must have masters. I had masters in my mind. But I did what I could do to turn my back on them and start to be myself.
TP: I just listened before coming over to two records you did in the ‘50s. One was the four trio sides with Joe Benjamin and Roy Haynes, which I guess Sarah Vaughan must have been in town, and they… [HE NODS], The second was your great solo record in ‘56, which, if you’ll allow me to compliment you, is amazing. You sound like no one else.
SOLAL: Yes. But to be honest, I think I was not ready to make a solo record in ‘56, but I did it because there was a lot of courager… At that time, in 1956, nobody was playing a lot in solo.
TP: That year, Hank Jones did a solo record and George Shearing did one, and I prefer yours, because you take the language of Tatum and Bud Powell on its own terms and then do something with it. You really rise to the challenge. I’m glad I didn’t give it to you on the Blindfold Test, because you probably would have criticized it.
SOLAL: [BARBARA TRANSLATES] [LAUGHS] I don’t know. I think I could recognize me. Even if I don’t listen to my records.
TP: But does the way you play on those accurately reflect the way you were playing during the ‘50s?
SOLAL: It was the beginning of something, yes. Well, from the beginning, I never wanted to be away from American jazz. For me, jazz was American jazz. Even if in Europe now, they say there is a European jazz, to me this is not the point. I want to play the jazz from the original, but with my conception, with my ideas which can be different—but I don’t want to turn my back to jazz. For me, jazz is important. The time is important. To play on the chords is important, because I am interested in harmony maybe more than… Above everything, harmony to me is important. I know some excellent musicians who play beautiful lines, but for them the harmony is not so important. For me it’s before everything, harmony. Why? Because harmony changed the sense of the line. The same line with different chords is not the same line any more. That’s very important.
TP: At what point did you stop assimilating influences? In other words, in the latter ‘50s were you listening to Bill Evans or to Ahmad Jamal, or to McCoy Tyner in the ‘60s, or people like this? Or were you on your way to creating your own path and not absorbing them into your style?
SOLAL: [BARBARA TRANSLATES] I think I stopped the influences very early, from the early ‘50s. But who knows who influenced who? I can influence someone who don’t know me. For instance, someone who listened to me will give him something. But the main influence for me, as you will read in the book, is… [HESITATES, THEN BARBARA SAYS “Teddy Wilson.”] Teddy Wilson. Sorry, Teddy Wilson. But you know what? When I first played in New York, in the Hickory House, which was a bar, in front of me was Teddy Wilson. So we became sort of friends for a while.
TP: I’m going to go there in a minute, because it seems that 1963 and 1964 were very important years for you. Before that, though, I’d like to ask about some of the people you played with in Paris and some of the recordings you did. First Kenny Clarke. You played a lot with him.
SOLAL: I played years with him. Every night.
TP: That must have done wonders for your rhythmic feeling.
SOLAL: Yeah. Kenny helped me a lot with his very strict timing. That was important at that time. From the ‘50s, through ‘63, I played twelve years in a club, every night. Can you imagine? Almost every night. So I was playing with every musician (most of them were American, of course) coming on tour in Europe, and all of them were coming to sit in with us.
TP: Was it always Club St. Germain?
SOLAL: Club St. Germain, yes.
TP: What was it like there? Was the piano any good?
SOLAL: Yes, there was a long piano. It was very rare in a club to have a good piano. We had a Steinway, I think. A good piano. I can’t tell you how many people I played with, just from meeting… My first meeting with Lee Konitz was there. Because Lee was playing on the Stan Kenton band, and he came and sat in once, and we met for the first time there.
TP: That had to be around 1953 or 1954, when he went out with Kenton.
SOLAL: Yeah, I guess. Then we didn’t see each other for ten years, and when we meet for the second time, we decided to do something together, and we played hundreds of concerts, in Europe and America.
TP: Anything more to say about Kenny Clarke?
SOLAL: What more is there to say? I could say a lot of things. I mean, things that everybody knows. He was under the influence of drugs. Sometimes he was crazy. Once, when I did a tour in Italy, with a fantastic band, I must say, with Kenny Clarke and Lucky Thompson, in the middle of the tour he couldn’t move from his hotel, for instance. It was serious, this. And he died very young, of course. But his playing was, at that time, considered as very moderne. He was maybe one of the very first to use his left hand to play syncopated on the snare. Before this, everybody was playing either brushes or on the cymbals. He was using both. He didn’t have big technique, by the way. He was playing like jazz musician of that time. I mean, a gifted musician, but not people coming out from conservatory, which is like the rule now.
TP: Where they can execute anything you give them. How about Lucky Thompson?
SOLAL: Lucky was a good experience for me. Because he was a long time in Paris, many years, and the first day he came, I became his piano player. So we did many, many records… Well, it was not long-playing at that time. Two tunes was a record. So we were recording very often. He was an excellent composer. For me, he was sort of a different Don Byas, but the same direction. For me, that was moderne enough. Then I’ve been interested in contemporary music and the different experiences. So I am happy to have started with middle jazz. I always say I am a child of middle jazz. But a child will become disobedient.
TP: Oedipus! You spoke a bit about Bud Powell in the blindfold test, with the anecdote that he had you bring him the beer.
SOLAL: That was to make a joke. He was something else also. But at that time, he couldn’t play as well as before. So the only contact he had with people, not only with me, was, “Hello, give me a beer; pay me a beer.” He was not in good shape. He still could play, but not like before.
By the way, I want to ask the question. The record you played yesterday, when was it made?
TP: 1950. “Tea For Two.” It was 1950. This was the third take.
SOLAL: It’s curious. I have some record of him where he plays much stronger, much better than that.
TP: My fault again.
SOLAL: Maybe so. To judge people, I like to judge anyone on what he can do the best. I am not going to judge Ahmad Jamal with this record of yesterday. I know him from the very early ‘50s. At that time, he had a perfect technique, he had a beautiful sound, a style. Now he doesn’t do any more, but on the contrary, now he’s never been more famous than now. Now he plays much less than before, and he is much more famous.
TP: It seems to me that now you’re much more famous than…
SOLAL: Well, with time, of course, people say, “Ok, Martial Solal, Martial Solal…” At the end, they know me. But with Ahmad Jamal, it’s different. Because he stayed a long time in Europe, and he became really a star, which he was not before. Ten years ago, he was not known.
TP: He was famous in the ‘50s, when he sold a million records…
SOLAL: Yes, but to be famous in the ‘50s is not like to be famous today. Things are different. Many festivals, many concerts. In the ‘50s there was no concerts! If you don’t play in a club, you have no work.
TP: So for 12 years, you’re house pianist at Club Saint Germain, and in ‘63 you come to America for the first time with a lot of fanfare, a lot of publicity, and you stay for six months. A lot of American musicians heard you—there are stories that Duke Ellington heard you, Oscar Peterson, and so forth. Was it your aspiration at that to come to New York, to come to America?
SOLAL: Oh, of course. For me, it was a dream. To be in New York was the thing that I should do in my life. I was not hoping that. And I received a telegram from George Wein, thinking, “It must be a mistake—not me.” But then I did… I mean, I should have stayed there. But my life was difficult at that time. I had to come back from New York.
TP: You said you were getting a divorce, you had a small child.
SOLAL: Yes, things like that. I was not ready to leave Europe.
TP: And you never did leave Europe.
TP: It sounds like that’s a transitional moment for you. It seems as though up to that point you were ready to be an expatriate. Ever since, it’s as though you’ve made peace with… It’s as though after then, you reaffirmed your identity as someone of Europe, as someone of France… I’m not making myself very clear.
SOLAL: [BARBARA TRANSLATES] The music has nothing to do with my stay in America or not. It’s only personal problem. If I had no problem, I would have stayed. I would have become American. That’s what my agent at that time, Joe Glaser, wanted. The first week in New York, I had my cabaret card, I had my syndicat…union—I had everything. He was a boilon.
TP: He was connected.
SOLAL: If he wanted me to stay, life became immediately easy for me. But I did the wrong thing. I left. I stayed four months, I guess, and I promised to come back the next November. He had a contract with Japan, and then in Chicago, London House, where every pianist was supposed to play—and I never came back, I never showed up. So he was very angry. But anyway, next year he called me again to go to Monterrey Jazz Festival, and then I come maybe 12 or 15 times, but in 40 years.
TP: I was thinking of that because of your remark to me that I hadn’t played you any European players, and that the Europeans had something to say, too. That spurred to think about what I knew about your life, and it seemed that this decision to stay in Europe may have been a transitional moment. Were you thinking this way in 1964?
SOLAL: I understand, but I want to be sure of everything. [BARBARA TRANSLATES] Yeah, I understand. I realized that it was a mistake, but I couldn’t change it.
TP: But I’m returning to your comment yesterday that the European perspective has something to say also, because I was playing you only American players.
SOLAL: It’s normal. Everybody does it. Don’t worry. But you didn’t do it. You played two French players. I think it’s a good idea. Now the situation is different. But for forty years, European jazz couldn’t have the same value as American jazz in the mind of the European audience. So it had been a difficult time for us to be considered as a musician, and not as a European musician. If you wanted some consideration… But even now, in the mind of many people, a good American musician is automatically better than a good French or European musician—except a very few. Maybe I am one of these. But in general, there is American… For instance, in France we have hundreds of festivals. You can watch a program—for one French there are ten Americans. I love American musicians. Don’t misunderstand me. I love America and American musicians. When I am in New York, I am like another… I am over-excited.
TP: It’s very stimulating in New York.
SOLAL: Yeah, stimulating. I know that the audience is a good audience, which we don’t have many here like that. That’s for sure. But only the audience here prefers…everywhere it’s the same… They prefer people coming from somewhere else. Anyway, it’s not only for jazz. It’s for cinema, for everything. Here I am in a good situation because I am not the local musician. I am coming from outside. So my situation here is good. You see what I mean. Coming from outside, it’s always better.
TP: Do you play much in Paris?
SOLAL: Not very often.
TP: Because they would treat you as a local musician?
SOLAL: No-no, I have an audience in Paris. I will play there in February and March. But my main occupation is outside, of course.
TP: The ‘60s in Paris were turbulent.
SOLAL: Do you mean in jazz?
TP: I mean culturally.
SOLAL: Still. Paris is a place for culture, of course.
TP: But there were transitions. Breathless-A Bout de Souffle. Avant-garde cinema. Many developments. I’m wondering to what extent you were involved in some of these things, Avant-garde music. You were writing film scores, and many filmmakers were very forward-looking in their aesthetic. I’m wondering how those streams influenced the way you think about things.
SOLAL: Movies, for instance, Jean-Luc Godard, A Bout de Souffle was my first big experience. At that time, I did realize that this movie was quite different from everything which had been done before. It was quite new in cinema.
TP: Nouvelle Vague, it was called.
SOLAL: It was part of Nouvelle Vague. I was lucky to make this score. After this one, I wrote about 40 different… But this one is the only one that people know, of course. After this, the cinema didn’t call me any more. There was a new interest. Not for jazz. Jazz was finished. They were interested more in rock and songs and pop music. So I started to write for symphonique. I wrote maybe 20 concertos—concertos for piano, of course, many of them, or for trumpet, for clarinet, for violin. I wrote a lot of music. But this music has been played a certain number of times, but not always.
TP: You once made a remark that you thought the future of jazz was in composition. It was a very interesting comment.
SOLAL: Yes, that’s what I thought when I said it. The story was not as I believed. People continued to improvise more than write. But I still think that when I said that writing is important. I am thinking of a very, very future. I mean, maybe two or three centuries from now. If nobody writes long pieces, important scores, jazz has the risk to die. I hope not. But I’ve always thought that it’s necessary for jazz to have long pieces. So from my personal experience, in 1957 I start with a very long piece for my quartet, a 30-minute piece. Nobody did it before. But that was something very special. Then I write some long pieces, but never as long as that one.
TP: Did other art forms influence your aesthetic in music? Of course, maybe not consciously, and this may be exaggerating. But let’s say the idea of a connection of jumpcut in cinema, and the way you make instant transitions in interpreting a piece. Or the notion of montage, touching on and playing with five-six different themes in the course of a piece. Or visual art. Did aesethetics from those media have any impact on the way you think about playing?
SOLAL: [TRANSLATES] I am going to try to say it in English. For myself, nothing could influence me. It was too late. Even Bout de Souffle, when I did it I was 32. It was a little late to have a new mind. And please, my mind was already full! No space for anything. But of course, we are influenced by everything. We cannot refuse. I am very interested by painting. My wife and her father are painters. So I like very much painting. But when I see a Renoir or a Rembrandt, I can’t say I am going to do this in music. This has no meaning. But in a certain way, the atmosphere of the century you live in influences you. Whether you refuse or not, you are influenced. But to be influenced doesn’t mean to copy. I don’t copy. I am somebody who gets everything in his mind, and I don’t know how I translate it often. I can’t tell you.
TP: I know that you read a great deal. There are stories of you practicing and reading a novel while you practice–the mechanics.
SOLAL: I did for some years. Not any more.
TP: What sort of things did you read?
TP: Philosophy ever?
TP: Nothing you had to think about.
SOLAL: I was doing this only while I was working on exercises. I couldn’t play a Chopin Wedding… No. My mind has to be free to read. My fingers were not thinking.
TP: I’m following up on the question about other aesthetic influences. I’m wondering if you were influenced by Sartre, Existentialism; or Surrealism; or these broader philosophical movements, particularly as a young man, when people fall under the sway?
SOLAL: I would say no.
TP: You are living existentialist philosophy as a jazz musician.
SOLAL: I read a lot of things. Normally I read. But I am not very interested in Jean-Paul Sartre or… Honestly, I think I am against it. I am not crazy about this. But in art, it’s different. I like some painters of this period. But not the system to be very abstract.
TP: You’re not interested in abstract art.
SOLAL: Not really. Like in my music, I like a mixture of very modern and very traditional. I don’t like any art that forgets everything that happened before. Like when free jazz came, I was not against free jazz. I was against the idea of put everything away. Not Charlie Parker, not Louis Armstrong, this is zero. This I didn’t like. But I understood the movement. I understood it was necessary. But for me, the best way is to use everything which exists. I have been interested in contemporary music for years. I have played with different contemporary composers. But I don’t like people who refuse the past. I think the past is necessary for the future. That’s my idea.
TP: Let me ask you about a few composers. Duke Ellington. When did you first listen to him? What was the effect of his music upon you?
SOLAL: Very late. Art Tatum and Duke Ellington, two of my favorite musicians, I discovered them maybe in the middle ‘50s. Very late. Everything I knew was before was middle jazz. And Erroll Garner, because he has a different approach to the piano. Really different. Yesterday, if you’d played a Garner, I would have said, “This is Erroll Garner.”
TP: I apologize for that.
SOLAL: [LAUGHS] But when you played the first one, for Ahmad Jamal, the first chord he played, I said, “This must be Ahmad Jamal.” But he lost so much of his technique. Then after that, I said, “Is it Ahmad Jamal or someone who plays like him?” So I didn’t say the name. I knew it was him. Because only he can do the beginning of the record, this beautiful, strong chord, very definitely… But I felt too many wrong notes. He couldn’t move his fingers. Like Monk, if you want. The way he touches the piano, nobody does it like this. But after, he is not a pianist any more.
TP: But you like Monk the composer a great deal.
SOLAL: I have been very influenced by Monk [Mohnk], more than people believe. I’m not so much influenced by “Round About Midnight.” This is a tune I played for all my life, because it’s a beautiful melody, and also a melody on which you can be very free. But the way he thinks about the music, not his music note-by-note, but the way he was free about certain rules of the music, this interested me a lot.
TP: As a composer, though. Not as a pianist.
SOLAL: No, of course. Every one of his compositions had something different than Cole Porter’s or even Charlie Parker’s music. It was different. I love anyone who has personality, a strong style, le passion d’etre.
TP: Talking about Monk brings up a question about the nature of technique and the purposes towards which technique is directed.
SOLAL: There is a difference in what I said yesterday. Monk never lost technique. He never had technique. That’s the difference. I was talking about Ahmad, who had technique, and who lost it because he didn’t practice.
TP: Do you think that Monk is an effective interpreter of his own music?
SOLAL: Il ne pas comprende.
TP: Do you think that Monk plays his own music with the proper technique.
SOLAL: With his proper technique, of course.
TP: So it’s proper for his music.
SOLAL: Well, I always said that if he had the Tatum technique, if Monk one Monday morning wakes up, goes to the piano, and plays like Tatum, there is not Monk any more. He has his sound because of the lack of technique. So the lack of technique is not automatically bad. But to lose the technique is bad, because when you lose the technique, what you play is still what you have in your mind. You will still play the same thing, but you missed two notes on the three, two notes every three notes.
TP: You remarked yesterday that you practice every day—except for yesterday, of course.
SOLAL: And I feel it already. I don’t feel very comfortable. Yesterday, I felt not like I wish.
TP: How much do you practice now?
SOLAL: Not much. Since the last ten years, I just practice enough to keep what I have. Before this I was practicing quite a lot. Not like classical pianists, say, eight years [ heures] a day. Never this. But my work was not studying musique. It was only sport, the sport part of the music, the exercise, when you play four hours of octave or scale or arpeggio, that’s a lot… That would represent a lot more than eight years [hours] just learning Bach or Mozart. I mean, about technique. You understand that? Am I clear now?
BARBARA: You’re clear, but you said “years” instead of “hours.” You meant hours.
BARBARA: It’s ok.
SOLAL: Yeah, yeah. Eight hours… I mean, four hours of technique represents more than eight hours of just learning pieces by rote.
TP: Do you also practice playing?
TP: Some of the black American musicians, Monk, Bud Powell, would talk about practicing playing. Walter Davis, Jr., told a story about Bud Powell, where he was a young kid and he would go to Bud Powell’s house, and Bud Powell was playing “Embraceable You.” He and his pals went out, did whatever they were doing, and when they came back 6 or 8 hours later, Bud Powell was still playing “Embraceable You.” Do you do that sort of thing with any of the tunes you play?
SOLAL: No. I never play a tune at home. I should have done it maybe. [LAUGHS] Very rarely. If I play five choruses on “Stella By Starlight,” I have enough for the day.
TP: that’s enough for you.
SOLAL: No, I want to keep fresh for a concert. At home, I practice stupidly, like a student, to get my muscles in good shape. The music is here. [POINTS TO HEAD] I don’t have to play it.
TP: So when you sit down at the piano, after you make the first sound, everything follows from that?
BARBARA: [WHISPERS] Yes.
SOLAL: Ah, yes. Every day I start the same way. I play an exercise with left hand and I improvise in right hand. These things don’t go together. It’s a different key, different tempo. Half of me is playing exercise, half of me is playing anything. Not music, but anything. That’s the way to independence of both hands.
TP: I was noticing on one of the tunes with Joe Locke just now, I can’t remember which, you were playing a very rubato, then all of a sudden you went into a perfect Harlem stride, then another rhythmic figure, all instantaneously. Is that just spontaneous…
SOLAL: Yes, of course.
TP: You’re not thinking in the first minute of your performing something you’ll be doing in the fifth minute.
SOLAL: No. Everything has to be spontaneous. Sometimes it could be a very bad idea also. But when you start something, you have to do it.
TP: Do you listen to your recordings?
SOLAL: Not much. I am never very happy when I listen to them. En Francais… I think my music should not be listened to in big quantity at one time. I think if you want to love my music, you take one of my records, you listen one or two tunes, and you forget it. The day after, two tunes. There is maybe too much information in it. I don’t know. But for someone… Of course, musicians know it. But for the audience, I mean, sometimes there is too much information.
TP: I’d like to know about your relationship to audiences. It’s complex to be a pure artist, which you are, and also make a career, to earn a living doing it. It seems you’ve worked out a good strategy by addressing the type of tunes that you play and using the strategy you’ve stated of giving the audience a signpost, something to grab onto, by playing “Tea for Two” or “Body and Soul” or “Round Midnight” and treating them as you do.
SOLAL: I hope I understood it quite right. When I play solo, I know the music that I play is not very easy. So I try to interest people by playing songs they know. For a while. Some years ago, I was playing very freely, no standards, and I understand that the public was not with me. It was too much… I always loved standards. I love standards, and also I want to prove that the good standards can be repeated for a century. If you have enough imagination, you can make it new every day. I’m never tired of “Body and Soul” and “Round Midnight,” because you can put all the music in the history of music in it.
TP: You can play any idea you want.
SOLAL: Anything. Sometimes I know I’m wrong, but if a stupid thing comes to my head, ok, I’ll do it. I don’t refuse when it’s a possible idea.
TP: Did you ever use the popular song of France?
SOLAL: Yes, of course.
TP: Chansons or Piaf?
SOLAL: Well, some time I wrote music from Piaf for a friend of mine, a trumpet player, with a string orchestra. So I wrote new arrangement from these stupid tunes. But I am not very interested by most of them. A very few of them are interesting enough to improvise on. Some of Charles Trenet, for instance, I play often, which is called “Que Reste T’Il de Nos Amours”. Or “La Mer,” which is famous in America, from Charles Trenet. He’s older. Michel Legrand wrote beautiful songs, but not songs on which I feel comfortable to improvise. I don’t know why. Beautiful songs.
TP: Some of Legrand’s songs are very sentimental.
SOLAL: Yes. I don’t know why. It’s the same for American songs. Some interest very much musicians, and some other beautiful songs, I’ve never played it.
TP: But a song like “Body and Soul,” is it a purely musical exercise, or are you also thinking of the lyric of “Body and Soul”?
SOLAL: No. I don’t know the lyrics. I should. I know that Americans consider the lyric also. But this melody is so beautiful and the changes are so interesting that… No, I don’t know the lyrics.
TP: How much do you play with the trio with Francois and Louis Moutin? How many years?
SOLAL: It’s many years. With Francois, I think it’s maybe 12 years, at least, and with his brother maybe five years.
TP: What qualities are you looking for the people who play with you in a trio?
SOLAL: I’m looking for people who are very fast, who understand immediately what I do. So I feel very free when I play with those kinds of musicians, because I can go anywhere, and I know that they will be with me. They will never be against me. They will try to go in the same direction. That’s very important. Not much like Ahmad Jamal, for instance, where everything seems to be decided before. Seems—I’m not sure. But when I play in trio, nothing is decided, except the melody we’ll use. But it can go in any direction. We can stop, we can slow down, we can change key. Everything. For instance, I let the bass player make four bars of a solo, and then I come in when the solo is finished. Everything can happen with them.
TP: Who else do you use in your trios?
SOLAL: Now, since this last year… I have shifted sometimes, but very rarely. You probably don’t know them.
TP: Have you ever in the last 20 years or so had combos, quartets, quintets, sextets?
SOLAL: No. I still have my big band. You probably don’t know about that?
TP: I have Dodecaband Plays Ellington.
SOLAL: Oh, you have that one. You don’t have the next one with the smaller group with our daughter who sings in it.
SOLAL: Maybe I could send you this with the book. We play not very often, but they are really the best musicians in town. I wrote all the music. It’s not standard music. It’s original music.
TP: In your view, over the last thirty years, what has the evolution of the jazz scene in Paris been like?
SOLAL: Well, there are many, many musicians. I think the level comes up at least technically, because the rule now is to go to conservatory first, to have a good technique, and then to be interested in jazz. So we have a lot of good musicians. But very few of them have a different concept, a new conception of music. But I could mention many…
TP: What do you mean by a “new conception”?
SOLAL: I mean new material at least. New songs, new… And some have different ideas of organizing the trio or medium-sized group. Like in America also, you have a lot of new musicians trying to not copy the past. This is normal. They literally are going everywhere.
TP: there are a lot of African musicians in Paris.
SOLAL: Well, but I’m not… I told you I’m only…
TP: Classical and jazz.
SOLAL: But I listen to everything. Because there is a channel called Mezzo, it’s the name of a channel, where they play every kind of music. I don’t like everything, but I listen… I know everything which exists, but I am not interested.
TP: Well, you made that point yesterday, when you said you like music to be a little bit crazy. I think you were referring to Pilc.
SOLAL: When I say somebody is crazy, it’s a good sign.
TP: I’d like to ask you about another comment you made, which is that you want to bring to jazz the highest values of classical music.
SOLAL: [TRANSLATED] My ambition is that jazz stays for centuries, so it has to be a serious music, not only music of junkies, but… That’s not exactly what I mean. We can be very serious about jazz music, because I think jazz can be very important. Including some ideas or some conceptions of Stravinsky or Bartok, our greatest composers, is not a bad thing for jazz. Jazz can eat everything and transform it into jazz. It’s a sort of stomach in which you put everything, and what’s going out is still nice music, and it still can be jazz. But we must never forget the essential of jazz, which is a certain way to express, to play the note, a certain conception of the rhythm. There are some specific notions of jazz which it’s necessary not to lose completely. If you want to add too many things in your mayonnaise, I don’t know. Too much oil on the mayonnaise, it gets to be a different thing.
TP: Let me ask you a couple of personal questions. How did you meet, and how long have you been together?
SOLAL: Forty years. We meet in a jazz club where I was not working but sitting in. When I had nothing to do, I was at this club, sitting in. The piano player was an American by the name of Art Simmons. He was playing there, and all the musicians were coming there after-hours, and by chance, my wife came with a friend of hers. That’s where we met.
TP: That’s 1968, the year everyone was in the streets. A fateful year in Paris.
SOLAL: We were so much in love that we didn’t care too much about it! Also, I had some concerts outside. I remember once we were in Brussels… The first concert I took my wife to with me was in Yugoslavia, and it was impossible to have to find a plane to go. So we go by car to Frankfurt, Germany, and from where we found a plane to go to the Zagreb airport.
TP: So you got used to life on the road.
TP: What neighborhood in Paris do you live in? Quelle arrondissement?
SOLAL: Oh, since we are together, we’ve moved six times, I think, each time more west—because the west part of Paris is more beautiful, more trees, more green. So the first one was No.17; then No. 12 just at the border of Paris, Boulogne it’s called; then a little more to what’s become Ville d’Avray… It’s where… Who habiter a Ville d’Avray… Then from Ville d’Avray, we went to Bougival, and the last twenty years now it’s Chatou.
TP: What kind of piano do you have?
SOLAL: Well, since thirty years I have a…not Yamaha, but the other one…a Kawai. A small grand. I bought it new and I made it a special touch, very stiff. I have another piano which I had before, I kept it, but with very light keyboard, and each time I had to play a concert, if the piano was louder than mine, I was in a very bad situation. Since I have this piano, no piano resists to me any more. Because mine is more loud than anyone else!
BARBARA: Not loud. Hard.
SOLAL: Hard. I mean, hard. Forte. In French we say lourd maybe.
BARBARA: Oui. Heavy.
SOLAL: When you press, you have to push more than with a light piano.
TP: To prepare yourself.
SOLAL: Yes. So I made it the way I wanted, so I need… By the way, I need maybe less time to work than with a lighter piano… Lighter? Leger. Heavy? Light… You just look at it, it works by itself.
TP: You said yesterday that many pianists as they get older, stop practicing. How do you stay motivated to do the things you do to keep you at the level you’re at?
SOLAL: Heh-heh, I am not very motivated. The only motivation is that I am too hung up when I can’t play right. For me, a bad concert, it’s one week like this… I must practice a minimum of 45 minutes. I don’t need more than 45 minutes.
TP: But you used to practice for four or eight hours…
SOLAL: No, no.
BARBARA: No. Four maybe.
SOLAL: I did it when it was time to do it, between my fifties and seventy. But since, the minimum to keep what I have… I don’t want to lose anything, but I don’t want to improve again.
TP: Someone to whom I was speaking about you said the thought you approached piano almost like an athletic in training almost.
SOLAL: Well, like every honest pianist. Not more. I don’t imagine a classical pianist not doing this. In jazz, some don’t do it. I mentioned some. But I think it’s not honest. If you want to be honest with the audience, you have to present yourself in the best possible condition. It’s no more than that.
TP: Is there anything you haven’t done that you still would like to do?
SOLAL: I’ve never been one hundred years. I’d like…
SOLAL: To do things…
TP: As long as you can play, I’d think.
BARBARA: I want to keep you!
SOLAL: I think I did… I think maybe nobody…not many people on this planet did as many things… I’m not talking about the quality. I’m now talking about the quantity. I did 12 years of club, for instance. Do you know many people playing 12 years in a club? And writing score music. Method books. I wrote methods. Books to help people learn.
TP: You wrote practice books.
SOLAL: Writing maybe 20 concerts, fully scored music, and playing concerts, and duets with a hundred people. It’s a lot.
TP: I wasn’t suggesting that you have anything to prove. I only wondered whether in your mind was something…
SOLAL: The only thing I want is to keep what I am able to do. I always say that I understand that if I can’t move my fingers normally, I would stop, because I would be too unhappy. People maybe will not notice it, but I’ll know it. The classical pianists say when you don’t practice for one day, nobody knows it; after two days, you know it; after one week, your wife knows it; and after one month, everybody knows it.
TP: How did you keep your health during the years you played in the clubs? I’ve heard about the Paris bars, and you were around…
SOLAL: Ask my wife. She cooks for me. That’s very important.
TP: But she wasn’t there in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. It seems you stayed away from all the bad influences from the people you were around.
SOLAL: That’s only a lucky… I have no merit…
SOLAL: I have no glory of it. It’s not my fault. I mean, I was not interested in drugs. All my friends was drugs…almost all of them died at 50. So I have been very lucky not to be interested.
TP: It didn’t interest you at all.
SOLAL: No. I could say I smoked three times in my life—I mean, smoked hashish. But that was just to please my friends, not for me.
TP: You have enough going on in your mind without…
SOLAL: I have no… The pas de merit….
BARBARA: It’s not his fault…
TP: I know what you mean…
BARBARA: It’s not a negative sense. It’s a positive sense.
SOLAL: It’s just luck. Good luck I was not interested.
TP: It seems you’ve really known who you are since you were very young, as though you envisioned something for yourself early on.
SOLAL: Maybe. I don’t know. I think everything is a question of luck in my situation. The luck, first, to like music; the luck first not to be interested in drugs; the luck to find my wife. I don’t know. I have nothing positive coming from me. Everything I have is luck.
BARBARA: Your character. You are so stick to…
SOLAL: Oh, yeah. When I have an idea in my head, I keep it for years.
TP: You’re stubborn.
SOLAL: I am very… Yes. That’s a quality, but once more, it’s not… It’s luck.
TP: Well, not everybody has talent. You had talent and nurtured it.
SOLAL: If you’re strong and tall, it’s not talent. It’s luck.
[END OF CONVERSATION]