Martial Solal at the Vanguard

Martial Solal starts a week of solo piano at the Village Vanguard tonight, and that’s a double eye-opener. It’s only the second time in its 72-year history that the club has featured a pianist playing solo. (The first, Fred Hersch, was in 2006.) More striking, it marks just the third time since 1963 that Martial Solal has played in New York City under any circumstances. The last time was four years ago at the Iridium, with his trio and saxophonist Lee Konitz, and it was a marvel, the fleetest and most lyrical I’d seen Konitz play in years. The time before that, just with his trio, was at the Vanguard—but the shows were in mid-September 2001, a couple weeks after the attacks of 9/11; few ventured into lower Manhattan for anything, much less to see an obscure French jazz pianist. Luckily, the sessions were recorded; Blue Note put out a CD of highlights called NY-1; finally, we could all hear the music behind the legend.

Born in Algiers in 1927, Solal was classically trained but took to jazz early. He played with Django Reinhardt in the ‘40s, wrote the soundtrack for Godard’s Breathless, and served as pianist of choice for the caravan of American jazzmen trekking through Paris in the ‘50s and beyond. His music bears the influence of Bud Powell’s staggered cadences, Art Tatum’s fluent chromaticism, Thelonious Monk’s playful wit, Lennie Tristano’s analytic focus, and Errol Garner’s lyrical limber—but, as such an odd mix might suggest, the resulting sound is all his own. He plays mostly standards, breaking up the melody, whittling it down to its sparest essence, then embellishing each chorus with a dozen variations, but never losing his grip on the tempo. Like Monk or Sonny Rollins, he improvises not just on the chords of a song but also on its themes, the moods it evokes, or some random association. No verse is the same; all are riveting.

He plays through Sunday.