Copyright ©2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Martial Solal is one of the greatest European jazz musicians alive. His life at the piano ranges from lessons with his opera singer mother, two collaborations with Django Reinhardt and Sidney Bechet to composing music for dozens of films. And at age 81, he keeps a schedule of concerts and club gigs that would tire out someone half his age. Reporter Frank Browning visited Solal at his house in suburban Paris and found the pianist working on a different sort of keyboard.

FRANK BROWNING: Macs. Martial Solal keeps one in almost every room of the rambling suburban house he finally had the money to buy at age 60.

Mr. MARTIAL SOLAL (Jazz Musician): I am crazy about those machines. I have five computers in the house.

BROWNING: Solal uses them to compose.

(Soundbite of piano playing and typing)

Mr. SOLAL: I just wrote this.

BROWNING: Aside from his relentless jazz performances, he has composed 15 piano etudes and more than 35 film scores. When Apple came up with composing software, it was a kind of deliverance for Solal.

Mr. SOLAL: It's fantastic to write music and to hear the music you just composed. You can change a part of the music. I can show you some of the music...

BROWNING: Sitting at the piano, he spins his chair toward one of the computer keyboards. The written score of a new etude he's composing opens up.

Mr. SOLAL: See? This page and I can - like you hear what is written.

(Soundbite of piano music)

BROWNING: Solal's music is as complex as his life. Born of Algerian Jewish parents, he immigrated to France in 1950 when he was only 23. Began playing in the underground jazz dives around St-Germain-des-Pres. Before long, he was recording with great jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.

(Soundbite of music)

BROWNING: Fame came to Solal for the music he composed for Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 breakthrough film, "Breathless."

(Soundbite of song "La Mort")

BROWNING: In a new memoir, Solal describes his experiences in the American black jazz world, in the film industry and as a classical composer. His manner betrays an almost childlike sense of curiosity and playfulness. That comes from his lifelong fascination with freedom and structure, says Claude Carriere, a jazz historian and longtime programmer at Radio France.

Mr. CLAUDE CARRIERE (Jazz Historian; Programmer, Radio France): He goes in every direction and comes back and breaks the tune. He plays with, more than he plays the tune, he plays with the tune.

BROWNING: You could say that's true of all jazz improvisation, and Carriere agrees, to a point.

Mr. CARRIERE: Yeah, but perhaps more with somebody like him because he's so brilliant.

(Soundbite of piano music)

BROWNING: What sets Solal apart from other musicians, as Claude Carriere sees it, is his mind, how his conscious brain is always engaged in the notes he plays.

Mr. CARRIERE: He is one of the rare musicians, I think, who can exactly play with his fingers what his brain asks him to do.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. CARRIERE: Many, many piano players, they have so many things under the fingers, they can almost sleep and continue to play. Martial - everything he thinks, he can play it. That's because he has worked, worked, worked on it, every day, hours and hours.

BROWNING: At least two hours and sometimes six, even today at 81.

Mr. SOLAL: I play exercises every morning, but my specialty is to play exercise only with one hand and improvising in the right hand. I give you an example.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. SOLAL: You see what sort of music it is? It's very enjoyable because it's never the same. I can do with different things like this.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. SOLAL: I could play for 100 years, it would be never the same, because right hand is very free to do what she wants, and left hand plays just the melody.

(Soundbite of piano music)

BROWNING: Solal spends 20 minutes on his exercises. Then he turns to Rachmaninoff or Chopin or Schumann.

Mr. SOLAL: I never play jazz at home except this exercise where right hand plays, sort of, jazz.

BROWNING: Why do you not play jazz at home? Rachmaninoff is very difficult, in the morning, particularly.

Mr. SOLAL: Well, because I keep my inspiration for the concerts. If I play much improvisation at home, I would maybe have nothing more to say. That's a sort of attitude to keep the best for the concerts.

BROWNING: Martial Solal says this will be the last year of giving concerts, though it's hard to imagine he won't make an exception, at least now and then. No matter what, to wake up in the morning, take his coffee and not touch his fingers to the keyboard, that's just not something Solal can imagine. For NPR News, I am Frank Browning in Paris.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: And you can hear full tunes from Martial Solal's catalogue at nprmusic.org.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.