One of my old piano teachers used to tell me, “Play the note all the way to the bottom of the key.” His advice was less about volume than about intent: he was cautioning me against the timid play of young improvisers. In that moment, I might know generally what I hoped to accomplish, but lack confidence in, facility for, or awareness of whatever I was going for—or a little of each. He wasn’t suggesting that I should have every note pre-figured and thought-out, but that I should hear what I play and play what I hear so that, at whatever volume I might be playing, my assuredness in and awareness of striking that note carried my finger all the way to the bottom of the key and through the keyboard. At the same time, his advice was also a rejoinder against relying on muscle-memory to easily traverse the keyboard without much concern for whatever “music” might be coming out. It was sage advice expressed in simplistic terms that veiled the profundity of the sentiment: improvising music is a paradoxical, attenuated balance of sensory awareness and controlled abandon—of acquired but forgotten facility and informed but fluid inspiration.
In his music, teaching, and philosophy, pianist Jean-Michel Pilc perfectly embodies this state. The first time I heard Pilc live was in 2006; it was also my first visit to Small’s, and one of the first shows I experienced after moving to New York City. It was one of the only times in my life I have willingly chosen to sit front row center, and, as the chairs were set up that night, it allowed me to sit inside the performance space so that the trio—with Ari Hoenig (drums) and Johannes Weidenmueller (bass)—played around, not in front of, me. I spent the whole show with my eyes closed and head down—allowing the music to wash over me—and eventually abdicated control over my listening. My amazement at the group’s technical facility and curiosity about what they were playing first drove me toward dissection: to sketch out the harmonic substitutions, to parse the metric shifts, and congratulate myself on identifying each and every quoted standard. But eventually—in part due to the sheer mental energy needed to grasp and hold onto all of that information—I let go further still. Instead of listening for something, I sat in the joyful, meditative awareness of hearing the performance, recognizing all of those elements as they passed, but reveling in their passing rather than trying to keep them around by thinking through and analyzing them.
If you listen for a something in Jean-Michel Pilc’s music, you will find it—fewer musicians exercise more versatility across such breadth of repertoires and genres—but you might be missing the point. Amid the torrents of allusions, strings of sequences, and sheer pianistic mastery lies the sustained passion and dynamic jocularity of a musician totally consumed with a love for melody unimpeded by convention or prescription. Pilc expresses his wonder and searching curiosity at the piano through improvisations that engage the listener, leading and encouraging them to follow him along and through the cycles and winding paths of his inspiration. And these paths are so varied, diverse, and fleeting that they actively dissuade the listener from lingering too long: Pilc encourages us to listen along with him and focus instead on what remains…a melody rich with potential and expressed with devoted care.
With the publication of his new book, It’s About Music: The Art and Heart of Improvisation, Pilc outlines the philosophies that guide his improvising world. Inasmuch as it represents a powerful counterexample to canonical jazz pedagogy, Pilc’s book is also especially noteworthy for the author’s self-awareness and detachment. As another expression of the same practices and principles that guide his playing, Pilc teaches through teasing out promising threads that he encourages the student to pick up and develop in an individualized fashion. Like his piano performance, Pilc’s teaching is not about regimented and prescribed mimesis, but self-fulfilling exploration and inspiration sustained by a series of flexible and customizeable exercises designed to build unique and dissociative masteries particular to the student. Pilc teaches to the bottom of the key, consciously and unselfishly allowing space for the sensuous interplay between music and philosophy to develop as it may, without forcing an outcome or relying on a pre-figured method.
As I planned the beginning of this new blog, it made perfect sense to start with Jean-Michel, not only because his music has so profoundly influenced me, but also for his openness to collaboration, dedication to education, and celebration of the power of inspiration and improvisation in everyday life. I am grateful for his participation and I hope that all of you can share in the enjoyment he and I experienced while preparing this first feature, which includes a transcribed conversation and reviews of his two latest recordings, along with one of his book (with a few excerpts from the text itself). I invite you to visit and share our collaboration, picking up whichever threads might interest you and carrying them through.
– “Sense, Feeling, and the Rhythm of Study: A Conversation with
– Album review…Jean-Michel Pilc, Essential (Motema Music, 2011)
– 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)
I’d also like to acknowledge and thank François Moutin, Greg Pasenko and Blujazz Productions, Jazz at the Kitano, and Kelly Nagata Powers for their support of this feature. A special debt of gratitude is owed to the photographer Matthew Lomanno, my brother, who generously sacrificed time while on another assignment in New York to provide the photography included here. More of Matthew’s can be viewed at this link.