About this Recording
GP697 - SOLAL, M.: Piano and 2-Piano Works (Ferrand-N'Kaoua, Solal)
English  French  German 

Martial Solal (b. 1927)
Voyage en Anatolie • Jazz Preludes • Exercice de Concert • 11 Etudes • Ballade for 2 Pianos


Imagination at Work

What I find so inspiring and fascinating about Martial Solal’s music is the sheer breadth of imagination with which he approaches the piano. Probably the most amazing improviser of our time, he combines a highly individual style with incredible technique. But he is also an inspired composer—one who relentlessly pursues his own original and demanding course.

Solal has said that he always wanted to write or invent music—jazz, initially, as he created both original works and arrangements for his first band, back in the 50s. He also began writing for the silver screen, composing the soundtracks for such classics as Jean-Luc Godard’s À Bout de Souffle (Breathless), Orson Welles’ The Trial and, more recently, Bertrand Blier’s Les acteurs (Actors).

In developing an innovative and unclassifiable compositional style, however, he has won the admiration of musicians beyond the world of jazz, worked with such eminent figures as Marius Constant and André Hodeir, and received commissions from a wide range of orchestras and other ensembles. His concertante works (he has written several concertos, including three for the piano and a triple concerto for piano, trombone and double bass) often feature improvisatory passages in dialogue with the fully composed material—something that comes as naturally to him as breathing. Indeed the very titles of his works often allude to this desire to build bridges between the two worlds: Échanges for piano and strings, Alternances, Coexistence, Cohabitation

A “Composer of the moment”, to borrow the title of a volume of interviews with French journalist and producer Xavier Prévost [Compositeur de l’Instant], Martial Solal is purely and simply a musician of today looking towards tomorrow. Without rejecting the past, he has no time for nostalgia. Too elegant ever to repeat himself, as a born showman, he is horrified by the very idea of being bored or boring.

Voyage en Anatolie (Journey to Anatolia): this work comprises 13 linked and vertiginous variations on the 32-bar chord progression widely known as “rhythm changes”, because it appears in the Gershwin standard I Got Rhythm, but nicknamed an “anatole” by French musicians. Anyone who’s played jazz has used it at one time or another—it works almost as well as the blues as a common reference point in a jam session. Solal loves wordplay, but pun aside, this piece has nothing to do with the peninsula of the same name. The famous theme is never quoted in full, and rather than simply ornamenting its tune, the composer demonstrates his amazing command of the art of variation. The original structure is never sacrificed, just pushed back a step or two to enable it to breathe more freely. According to Solal, “it’s a totally jazz piece—a kind of survey of its history, heading off on a few tangents here and there… It’s hard, because you absolutely have to keep to the tempo (minim = 160).” Understood, Martial—we’ll do the best we can!

Each of the seven Jazz Preludes, written in around 1990, is a snapshot brimming with clearly defined musical ideas that the improviser could have kept to himself and used whenever he liked. Instead, he’s donated them to all pianists, by noting them down in a set of concise and incisive pieces to be leafed through as one might an album of swiftly sketched but highly coloured images.

Exercice de concert is a frenzied improvisation, based on a formula familiar to all student pianists. The left hand repeatedly plays the same motif while the right hand moves freely, sometimes taking the left with it in spontaneous digressions. The principle recalls that of Debussy’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum (the first piece in Children’s Corner), it too based on a “proper” piano exercise. Solal tells me he makes himself play this exercise virtually every day, in a different form each time (to avoid boredom), though usually beginning, as here, with the left hand in B major. To help him perfect this written-out version, only recently notated—on the basis of his 1994 recording—Solal turned to Pascal Wetzel, known for his remarkable note-for-note transcriptions from the recordings of Bill Evans. Here we find Solal’s characteristic humour and spirit in music dotted with sudden flashes of brilliance, fragmentary segments and quotations as fleeting as they are unexpected (Grieg’s Peer Gynt, Chopin’s Waltz No.1). With this (as yet unpublished) score Solal and Wetzel give any pianist ready to try tackling it an idea of the exhilaration performers can feel when they allow their imagination to run wild.

A great admirer of the Études by Chopin and Liszt, Solal has written his own 11 Études, inventing musical elements in order to illustrate specific pianistic difficulties, be they rhythmical or technical, but in a way that only a jazz musician could have envisaged. Although meticulously notated, they often require a particular kind of interpretation, a swing that has to be felt between the lines, as in La Syncopée. All of them make well thought-out demands on the hands, but several of them also explore original and piquant harmonies, often with a hint of the exotic, as for example in La Calme et agitée and La Lancinante. They have already taken their place in the piano repertoire and their role is certain to increase as they become better known.

The Ballad for two pianos was written in 1985 for Katia and Marielle Labèque. Here the composer himself is playing the first piano part (heard on the left channel) and so gets the party started. The two pianists converge and diverge again, according to the vagaries of the score, then establish a dialogue in which they exchange views during short improvised segments.

Jazz and classical musicians often regard one another with curiosity, sometimes even with a touch of envy. At some point, the now separate genres of music to be performed as written and music to be transformed or invented may come together as one again, as used to be the case before performance became a profession in itself. For me, as a classically trained pianist but longtime fan of jazz, meeting Martial Solal was like discovering a long-lost uncle from America who had explored musical territories that I knew nothing about. I am truly delighted and honoured to have had the chance to work with him on this album devoted to his piano compositions.

Eric Ferrand-N’Kaoua
English translation by Susannah Howe

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