Where has French pianist Martial Solal been all of these years? Plenty of listeners asked that question as the 75-year-old French pianist taught old standards some dazzlingly different new tricks at the Jazz Bakery. Old enough to have played, by his reckoning, on Django Reinhardt’s last recording session in 1953, he has kept up a steady stream of recording activity since, but mostly on European releases that were always hard to locate here. That pattern is about to change, for last week, Blue Note released a startling live CD, “NY1: Live At the Village Vanguard,” recorded one week after Sept. 11, 2001.
Perhaps the main reason Solal has been overlooked is that he simply does not fit into any molds. For all of his bebop roots, he has grown way too unpredictable to be stuck in that bag. He could deconstruct “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” with single notes in the bass and wild right-hand runs, turn “Body And Soul” inside out, gradually lead us all around and eventually inside “Cherokee” or “When Lights Are Low.”
His solos were jagged, cryptic, a bit screwy, unafraid of dissonance, and his original pieces (“NY1,” “Zag Zig”) were filled with asymmetrical patterns and gaps of silence.
In the second set, Solal’s sense of humor ran riot; he would slip in sly quotes of Mendelssohn, Offenbach and Stan Kenton’s “Artistry in Rhythm” (which is actually Ravel), or distribute “Tea for Two” into different clefs. Selections that seemed to end suddenly sprang to life and headed in other directions.
This is a genuine original, a skilled musician free enough in spirit to trust and revel in whatever his youthful imagination conjures up. Solal’s loose-jointed rhythm partners, the twin brothers Francois (bass) and Louis (drums) Moutin, picked up on every idiosyncrasy instantly and added some of their own.
His stand at the Bakery may have been his Los Angeles live debut; he can’t remember playing here before, although he recorded an unreleased studio album in town decades ago.