“What I’m in search of is exceptions,” jazz pianist Jean-Michel Pilc explains. His new live concert recording, Essential, due out May 10, 2011 on Motéma Music, intimately captures an exceptional series of improvisations on both brand-new and classic themes. While there are dazzling passages here that demand Pilc’s formidable technique, there’s also a striking simplicity, directness and an irrepressible passion. Blending vividly lyrical passages with otherworldly, reflective interludes, unexpected dissonances and playful digressions, it’s a vivid display of the individuality that American audiences have come to expect since his arrival in New York in 1995. Of this recording, “It represents who I was that night,” Pilc explains. “What I do is pure improvisation. Sometimes you play a concert and you don’t feel like it’s natural – this concert had the feeling that I have at home playing the piano, completely relaxed. This particular night, there was nothing of that ‘live performance thing,’ having to convince people, and squeeze things in. This was music being made for the sake of music. Everything here is improvised except for one of the Etude-Tableaux, and that’s based on something I came up with a few days before – an improvisation on an improvisation!” The CD version of this album, only his second solo recording, features not only live concert material but also a video of a special private performance during the two-night stand where the material here was performed
Freely employing the entirety of the piano’s range, Pilc also isn’t afraid to go beneath the lid and coax unusual timbres directly from the strings themselves. There’s also evidence here of Pilc’s seemingly ambidextrous two-handed approach which on occasion will resemble two separate voices, sometimes conversationally, but more often than not completely independent of one another. Also in full effect is Pilc’s puckish sense of humor. A delightful version of Caravan becomes a game of hide-and-seek, Pilc interjecting seemingly random fragments of the melody amid low, rumbling, pedaled atmospherics or joyous right hand cascades, practically a mashup of the original with an improvisation.
Likewise, Pilc artfully skirts the melody of Take the A Train, a wry contrast between low boogie woogie-tinged left hand and devious flourishes in the right. Someday My Prince Will Come hints at a darkly suspenseful, bluesy ballad approach before flying off into the upper registers; by contrast, Pilc takes Chopin’s A Minor Waltz and turns it into a foundation for alternately bracing and warmly consonant lyrical passages, an utterly original repurposing which begins with pain and poignancy but ends on a hopeful note.
Yet the original improvisations are the centerpiece here. The title track is a thoughtful, methodical blues ballad shaded grey – it’s slow enough that the listener can think along with Pilc and watch how he does it, finally scurrying off before returning to the source.
The series of Etudes-Tableaux begin with a somewhat austere boogie, followed by a deliciously bouncy, fractured pop melody with an amusing series of endings; a starlit ballad that opens the door wide on the kind of riveting intensity Pilc can deliver; another that could be Haydn through the prism of Scott Joplin; and a Brubeck-esque jazz waltz that plays clever rhythmic tricks. There’s also a judicious, expansive version of I Remember You; an eerie music-box take of Scarborough Fair; an arrestingly brooding, compelling Blue in Green, and Mack the Knife, reinvented as a jester.
“If I had to learn how to play this, I couldn’t!” Pilc laughs. “It’s completely in the moment. When I play a concert like this, I have no idea of what’s going to happen. That’s what improvisation is allabout: it’s about doing it differently every time. It’s something very magical. Music, like love, is about how you do it.”
“Jean-Michel’s humor, unpredictability, complete commitment to the moment – no matter what it brings – I find all of that amazing and different about him. I am also fascinated that no matter how still he gets, you can always feel the pulse of the beat in the music and in the air around him, says Motéma Music President Jana Herzen. “I was at the show when he recorded this album and I was very impressed at how he sometimes would sit silently for a while just waiting for inspiration to arrive… then it would land on him like some kind of butterfly and off he would go into a new improvisation. His commitment to what’s real and present is very strong.”
In addition to this solo release, Jean-Michel will also release a brand new recording by his original trio – François Moutin on bass and Ari Hoenig on drums – who were met by critical acclaim for their 2002 release, Welcome Home. Since then, all three have become leaders in their own right. The Pilc Moutin Hoenig Trio, fresh out of the studio, will release “Threedom”, on the Motéma label on August 9, 2011.
ABOUT JEAN-MICHEL PILC
Paris-born, New York-based, self-taught jazz pianist Jean-Michel Pilc is one of the foremost improvisers, composers and pianists in jazz today. Pilc served as Harry Belafonte’s musical director and pianist, and has worked with an eclectic mix of jazz greats including Roy Haynes, Kenny Garrett, Michael Brecker, the Mingus Big Band and Mingus Dynasty, John Abercrombie, Lenny White and many others. A resident of New York since 1995, Pilc first made his mark leading his acclaimed trio with bassist François Moutin and drummer Ari Hoenig (now regrouped under the band name Pilc Moutin Hoenig). In addition to numerous works for trio and big band, he also authored a Trio Sonata with support from Chamber Music America’s New Works Program and, most recently, “Modern Lights,” a composition reflecting Charlie Chaplin’s work, premiered at the Caramoor Jazz Festival in 2009. Some of Pilc’s best-known recordings over the past fifteen years include The Jean-Michel Pilc Trio:
Together – Live at Sweet Basil, Volumes 1 & 2 (2000); Live at Iridium (2005) and True Story (2010). Additionally, Pilc is the subject of John McCormick’s 2009 documentary film, “Jean-Michel Pilc – A Portrait.” Essential is his first recording for Motéma Music. In addition to solo projects, Pilc Moutin Hoenig Trio and composing, Pilc is also a NYU Steinhardt faculty member and teaches at The New School in NYC.
“A dazzlingly inventive pianist.” – –Nate Chinen, The New York Times
“Beyond all that can be said about his masterful technique and his beauty of touch, it is the unpredictability that is central to his remarkable talent.” – Harry Belafonte
“While truth is present in each of these musical stories, beauty and musical greatness are also a large part of the picture.” – All About Jazz, on Jean Michel Pilc’s previous album True Story.
“His densely harmonic reinventions of standards you thought you knew clearly shows a musical genius at work.”– Eric Brace, Washington Post
“Mr. Pilc seems to have dropped from the sky fully formed, with technique and his ideas in place. He is a physical and densely harmonic player, a splashy stunner who also has a Rubik’s-cube mind for chord substitutions.” – Ben Ratliff, The New York Times
“”Follow Me” stands a major summation of Pilc’s keyboard art, which has no counterparts. Pilc ranks among today’s titans of the instrument… there’s more to his art than the speed, precision and power of his 10 phenomenal fingers.”– Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune