Jean-Michel Pilc’s Essential Combines Great Wit and Great Chops
Jazz pianist Jean-Michel Pilc’s new live solo album Essential is just out on Motéma, and it’s a match of astonishing chops and playful wit, in fact, one of Pilc’s best creations. A defiant advocate of pure improvisation, the way Pilc takes both original and classic themes, deconstructs them or reconstructs them, all the while making them up on the spot, is extremely entertaining. As he explains, literally everything here is improvised with the exception of one in a series of fascinating miniatures titled Etude-Tableaux – and that one Pilc came up with only a few days before he recorded this concert. The cd version of this album features features not only live concert material but also a video of a special private performance from the two-night stand where this material was recorded.
Utilizing the entirety of the piano’s range, Pilc will occasionally venture beneath the lid and coax timbres directly from the strings themselves. There’s also evidence here of Pilc’s seemingly ambidextrous two-handed approach which on occasion resembles two separate voices, sometimes conversationally, but more often than not has them working virtually independently 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 righthand 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 lefthand 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 pieces de resistance. 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; a contrasting miniature that evokes both Erik Satie and the Boomtown Rats’ I Don’t Like Mondays; 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.
Pilc is playing a bunch of festivals this summer including Montreal; his next NewYork dates seem to be Aug 30-31 at the Blue Note with Pilc Moutin Hoenig Potter featuring his longtime rhythm section, bassist François Moutin and drummer Ari Hoenig, plus saxophonist Chris Potter.
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