Jazzers Solal, Gustavsen Shine In Age of Really Good Pianists

Like a lot of jazz fans, I suspect, I was first drawn to the sound of the saxophone like that RCA dog to his master’s voice, my ears pressed against the bell of the horn courtesy of classic recordings by Pres, Bird, Trane, Rollins and Getz. And like a lot of jazz fans, I suspect, I’m having a harder time hearing new, compelling saxophone voices to augment the likes of those.

I don’t blame the musicians. It must be a bitch to pick up a horn with a measly two-octave range and the capacity to play only one note at a time (leaving overtones and freaky multiphonics aside), and come up with something that never occurred to one of the foundational geniuses of the music. Maybe the current generation of younger saxophonists are just biding their time to make a Major Statement-but when it comes, I suspect it will be in the service of composition and arrangement, not encoded in a great, unfettered sob of a solo. We’re all so pickled in the history of jazz saxophone, it can’t just be about the horn anymore.

It strikes me that jazz pianists have an easier time keeping the hobgoblins of predictability and cliché at bay. Consider the advantages of seven octaves, 88 keys and a boggling variety of harmonic possibilities. Just playing the instrument without sheet music seems a composerly act. And maybe we’re just living through an age of really good jazz pianists.

That, anyway, was my impression at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center’s “Lost Jazz Shrines” piano concert on May 30, a triple bill of Bertha Hope, Joanne Brackeen and Francesca Tanksley. None of the three pianists is much known outside the jazz hard-core, and according to the homage theme of the concert, all were bending their individual styles to pay tribute to the two-fisted swing of keyboard matriarch Mary Lou Williams. And yet, what came through was the indelibility of the pianistic fingerprint: Ms. Brackeen’s crisp, springy attack and classically precise time sense; Ms. Hope’s muscular and bluesy touch; Ms. Tanksley’s brooding romanticism. Jazz has always risen or fallen on the strength of its individual instrumental voices. At the Tribeca Center, you could feel the saving grace of personality.

Hope to Brackeen to Tanksley was one satisfying tour of the piano-jazz landscape. More compelling still is the work of two out-of-towners, the French-Algerian elder eminence Martial Solal, 75, who recently turned in a bravura gig at the Iridium, and an on-the-rise Norwegian, Tord Gustavsen, 33, who will be coming to Joe’s Pub on June 29. Their two recent albums, the Solal trio’s NY-1: Live at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note) and the Gustavsen Trio’s Changing Places (ECM), stake out wildly divergent approaches to jazz-piano trioism. Both succeed handsomely.

The textbook line is that contemporary European jazzers found their own identity apart from the American motherlode in a severe “free” atonalism (saxophonist Evan Parker, guitarist Derek Bailey), and in a lyrical if sometimes chilly meld of classical tones and (white people’s) folk motifs (a lot of what you hear on the influential German label, ECM).

Solal is a different story. He belongs to that small camp of Europeans that play what Americans would call American jazz-only, on a good night, better. (This camp originates with the Belgian gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and then degenerates into a lot of bar arguments.) For all that, Mr. Solal only played a New York club once, and except for a couple of subsequent American jazz-festival appearances, he’s been content, or consigned, to burnish his reputation on the European home court.

The stars were strangely aligned in September of 2001, when Mr. Solal arrived to make his Village Vanguard debut and a live recording of it. As it turned out, he had to try to make sense of a Manhattan reeling from the terrorist attack. The album’s title tune, NY-1 , is his tribute to the redoubtable cable-news channel that he stayed glued to when he wasn’t on the piano bench. Those jazz fans who negotiated the police barricades and the toxic downtown air were mesmerized by Mr. Solal’s virtuosity. In those grim weeks, an elevating concert could be taken as proof of life itself.

Like his countryman Jacques Derrida, Mr. Solal is at heart a deconstructionist. On the new album, he’ll take a tune by his daughter, Claudia Solal, or the hoariest of standards (yes, “Body and Soul”), and mine it for fragments that please him. A bit of melody, an interesting rhythmic figure, some dissonant abstraction that sounds more Bartok than Tin Pan Alley-they will all be pressed into service as building material for a new musical structure. So “Body and Soul” ceases to exist as a jazz cliché and becomes a platform for Martial the Magnificent to do his thing (and, like all magicians, he must be seen live).

In lesser hands, this approach would invite self-indulgence and incoherence. Mr. Solal, supported by an intensely responsive rhythm section (on the album, bassist François Moutin and drummer Bill Stewart) sounds like he’s taking jazz to perfectly logical idiomatic extremes: the arpeggiated ornamentation is reminiscent of Art Tatum, the radical tune surgery of Thelonious Monk. He plays with such drive, his fragments cohere into a compositional whole, like the celluloid stills in a film reel that move fast enough to create the illusion of another world.

The handsome, young Mr. Gustavsen, on the other hand, thinks about such things as the psychology and phenomenology of music. After having waded through the 46-page abstract of his doctoral dissertation, The Dialectical Eroticism of Improvisation , I’d venture to say he thinks about them a lot.

Among other things, Mr. Gustavsen is consumed with the age-old aesthetic question of how a listener comes to an impression of a piece of music in any given moment when the piece can only reveal its final shape and nature over the course of time. Mr. Solal would seem to have his own working solution, a style in which change is so constant and so artful that the listener absorbs a sense of organic rightness-everything is unfolding according to plan. (Don’t ask me how he does it; he just does it.) In Changing Places , Mr. Gustavsen takes the diametrically opposite tack: Accompanied by bassist Harald Johnsen and drummer Jarle Vespestad, he commences the album in a rhapsodic mood, and then stays there. The illusion is that nothing ever changes. Melodies float in space and you, the listener, float off with them.

The album that comes to mind as an immediate point of reference is Miles Davis’ classic Kind of Blue . Both Changing Places and Kind of Blue have that hip, hypnotic underwater sort of momentum that leaves you blissed-out and snapping your fingers at the same time. Miles achieved the effect with, not surprisingly, a strong blues palette and repetitive modal harmonic patterns. Mr. Gustavsen relies on conventional forward-moving diatonic harmonies, but he moves so deliberately, and recycles his melodic material so shamelessly, you have the sense of being trapped in a single song for an entire album.

The trap is entirely pleasurable given the caressing, singing way the trio holds notes, and an underlying Latin rhythmic tinge that does impart needed energy at slow speeds. The feeling is high, yes. Catatonic, no. I’ll let Mr. Gustavsen close out in his own language: “One should practice … being cool and being hot, being hard and being soft. One should expand one’s consciousness contemplating the eroticism of improvisation.” Amen.

Live Notes

The JVC Jazz Festival New York 2003 is awash in fine pianists. Chick Corea plays Avery Fisher Hall on June 26; the Dave Brubeck Quartet are at Carnegie Hall on June 27; Herbie Hancock and the Wayne Shorter Quartet are at Carnegie Hall on June 28. Saxophonist Ornette Coleman doesn’t play piano, but hear him anyway, at Carnegie Hall on June 25.