Sunday, June 15, 2008

Jazz Score: Martial Solal

“If A Bout de Souffle didn’t exist, nobody would think its music was particularly interesting.” So Martial Solal says in the liner notes to a French collection of his film soundtracks. That film is known to English speaking audiences as Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, the watershed film of the French New Wave, regarded as much for its perceived revolutionary aesthetics as for its own cinematic merits. However, Solal himself played no originals, cinematic or otherwise, during his concert at MoMA last night as part of the Jazz Score series, opting instead for a program of standards.

Even though the recently arrived Solal explained it was 2:30 in the morning by his time, he was in the mood to play, performing approximately two hours, including a lengthy encore. He was truly in the mood to play “Caravan,” playing two significantly different versions in a row and later head-faking the audience with a sizeable quote from the Tizol standard before starting a completely different tune.

Solal is still at the top of his game, simultaneously playful and explorative. His approach to standards can be almost cubist, but he always brings things back into the pocket. He and bassist François Moutin were perfectly in-synch playing together, though at times Solal seemed to be changing things up to make things interesting. “He’ll get tired before I will,” he told the crowd.

Solal’s wit came through in both his music and his banter, delighting a sold out house. Those who return tomorrow can screen Breathless, Godard’s radically influential directorial debut (music-less trailer here). Loosely based on a treatment by François Truffaut, crediting Claude Chabrol as a technical advisor, and featuring Jean-Pierre Melville in a supporting role, Breathless is the end product of contributions from at least four major French directors, but Godard is the unquestioned auteur.

Breathless is nihilism triumphant, but fascinatingly so. In any other film, Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel Poiccard would be a pathetic jerk. For Godard, his accidental violence is his existential redemption. He apes the gangsters of American film noir, particularly Bogart, and after much effort, seduces the not very impressed American Patricia Franchini, played by Jean Seberg. He convinces her to accompany him on the lamb, until she betrays him more or less on a whim. Like Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Marc in Le Départ, Poiccard is an immature young man, who fancies himself a bad customer, but his posturing escalates into full-blown criminality. Solal’s music helps evoke the film noir that influenced both director and character, with themes that swing, but have a hint of menace. Indeed, his main theme, “La Mort” is classic crime jazz.

Breathless has been interpreted as an anti-American statement: a Frenchman seduced by Hollywood images into a life a crime is betrayed by an unfeeling American working for The New York Herald Tribune, an arm of the omnipresent American media. Knowing where Godard went in later films, it is probably a fair interpretation. It hardly needs be said that millions saw those same gangster movies without being similarly effected as Poiccard. They simply had stronger personalities and moral compasses. Of course, that makes them boring to Godard.

Breathless screens again at MoMA this afternoon, as part of the well programmed Jazz Score retrospective. MoMA’s concerts in the series have had a distinctly international flavor, with the French-Algerian Solal following that of Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko. Solal does not play in America that often, so hearing him live last night was a rare treat.