Sketching out the exhilarating landscapes of his artistic world with remarkable transparency, in his album Essential Jean-Michel Pilc shares the magic of the live performance and the intimacy of the private studio. Full of surprise and joy, Pilc’s masterful pianism is refreshingly unapologetic in its expansiveness and endless imagination.
Essential, Motema Records MTM-61, 2011. Personnel: Jean-Michel Pilc, solo piano. Tracks: J & G; Caravan; Someday My Prince Will Come; Take the A Train’ Waltz No. 3 in A-minor / Three Four Too’ Essential’ Too Young to Go Steady; Etude-Tableau No. 1; Etude-Tableau No. 2; Etude-Tableau No. 3; Etude-Tableau No. 4; Etude-Tableau No. 5; Etude-Tableau No. 6; I Remember You; Scarborough Fair; Sam; Blue in Green; Mack the Knife. Recorded at the Fazioli Piano Loft at Union County Performing Arts Center, Rahway, NJ.
As with Threedom, the other album Pilc released on Motema in 2011, Essential preferences love of melody above all. When considered along with that album and his new book, Pilc presents to his audiences a truly enlightening and self-effacing set of views into his improvisational, compositional, and creative processes. As the melody serves as the guideline to be followed and carried through any of his performances, unifying these albums and his book is a committed devotion to inspired performance, individual creativity, thorough musicianship, and melodic development over any and all conventions of genre, canon, or school of thought. The results of this devotion is highly unique and inventive music—whether Pilc plays the role of pianist, educator, or writer—that inspires and enlivens his audiences. Essential begins with “J & G,” composed and improvised by Pilc, and Tizol and Ellington’s “Caravan”—two starkly contrasting performances that provide a microcosmic representation of the pianist’s music. “J & G” acts as a quiet, meditative reflection that opens an atmospheric space which is then thunderously filled with the first attacks of “Caravan,” which Pilc re-creates with awe-inspiring pianism that supersedes genre. Pilc literally gets inside the piano, manipulating the strings and inner workings of the instrument to improvise on not only the composition, but also on the conventions of piano-playing. Alternating between delicately plucked harmonics and swift, jabbing slaps, Pilc coerces the piano’s strings and the keys alike, producing waves of music and sound watermarked by a sometimes obliquely implied melody that once again provides a constant through-line. He continues in the same spirit through the standards “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “Take the A Train,” unfolding for the listener a series of dynamic performances in which the smallest melodic fragment can provide the igniting spark for yet another torrent of pianistic display. In a series of “Etude-Tableau,” Pilc extemporizes six delightful vignettes, which take on new life when considered along with his book on improvisation. At the piano Pilc embodies his pedagogical adage “play what you hear and hear what you play,” which no doubt lends the “Etude-Tableau” their pristine clarity. Pilc closes the album with another set of “re-created” standards, in which it becomes clear that, as a pianist and artist, his personal voice and artistic vision augments, but never detracts from or overpowers, these compositions. His attention and devotion to melody as watermark for each performance presents an unapologetic pianism that eschews convention and constantly breaks new ground. In Pilc’s improvising world, he imbues even the smallest, most trite jazz cliché—such as a melodic tag at the end of “I Remember You”—with such great potential, then realized through transposing, extending, and spinning it out in the manner of classical development (even clearer on “Waltz No. 3 in A-Minor / Three Four Too,” in which Pilc seamlessly weaves his own improvisations into Chopin). Through constantly, creatively, and passionately realizing this potential, Pilc charges every moment of his music with energy, excitement, and joy. But, considering Essential as a whole, he shines even more as a paragon of inspired musicality—a rare talent possessing love for improvised art, superior skill and creativity, and devotion to disseminating his work in the hopes of inspiring others.
In the final moment of the album, after the last notes of a rhapsodic romp through “Mack the Knife,” Jean-Michel playfully asks, “Is that what you had in mind?” The subsequent laughter of his listeners in the soundbooth suggests the surprise and wonder that Pilc’s music supplies in endless amounts. No, that’s not what I had in mind, but what I may have wanted to hear would have surely paled in comparison to what you just played…
– “Inspired Intuition and Dissociative Play: The Improvising World of
– “Sense, Feeling, and the Rhythm of Study: A Conversation with
– Album review…Pilc/Moutin/Hoenig, Threedom (Motema Music, 2011)
– Book review…It’s About Music: The Art and Heart of
Improvisation (Glen Lyon Books, 2012)