TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Over the years, Algerian-born French pianist Martial Solal played with jazz luminaries including Sidney Bechet, Don Byas, Stan Getz and Lee Konitz. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Solal is particularly esteemed for his solo playing. Here's his review of a concert recording made last November.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIAL SOLAL'S "BODY AND SOUL (LIVE AT THEATER GUTERSLOH)")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: When Martial Solal plays a tune he's performed many, many times, like "Body And Soul," he doesn't have a more or less set version to use as a starting point. He improvises from scratch, aiming to make it new every time. That's how it goes on his solo recital "My One And Only Love." Solal begins the evergreen "All The Things You Are" like it's a blank canvas, reducing the melody to a bare outline.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIAL SOLAL'S "ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE (LIVE AT THEATER GUTERSLOH)")
WHITEHEAD: Martial Solal's improvising is often playful or unpredictable. Sometimes he'll bend the form of a tune with an unscheduled interview. In jocular moments, he's described jazz as a music of deliberate wrong notes and mistakes. There's a trace of keyboard comic Victor Borge in him, as well as jazz wizards Earl Hines and Erroll Garner. On this 2017 concert, Martial Solal reharmonizes one very familiar French tune he claims never to have played before.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIAL SOLAL'S "SIR JACK II (LIVE AT THEATER GUTERSLOH)")
WHITEHEAD: Solal's music isn't usually so dense. More often, the texture thins out. His left hand grunts a minimal baseline while his right hand takes flight or burrows under the surface. When he puts the serious improvising and playful attitude together, digging into a melody and teasing the beat, he can pull you along like a great storyteller. This is "Night In Tunisia."
(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIAL SOLAL'S "NIGHT IN TUNISIA (LIVE AT THEATER GUTERSLOH)")
WHITEHEAD: I'd listened to Martial Solal's "My One And Only Love" a couple of times before realizing he recorded it shortly after his 90th birthday. A generation ago, working jazz musicians over age 85 were a wonderment. Now they're almost commonplace. It got me thinking about how these elders keep going to play like that. But, of course, it's the other way around. They play to keep going. The spontaneous invention and the discipline behind it are what keep their minds and fingers nimble.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIAL SOLAL'S "TEA FOR TWO")
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "My One And Only Love" by pianist Martial Solal on the Intuition label. After we take a short break, David Edelstein will review the new movie "Blockers." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUY MINTUS TRIO'S "OUR JOURNEY TOGETHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.