Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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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May 10, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Malika Zarra’s Berber Taxi Whisks You Away

Growing up in France, chanteuse Malika Zarra had to downplay her Moroccan Berber roots. Here she celebrates them. It’s a quiet, rapt celebration: imagine Sade’s band if they’d relied on real rhythm rather than that annoying drum machine, and you’ll have a good idea of what her new album Berber Taxi, just out on Motema, sounds like. Blending the warmth of American soul music with tricky North African rhythms, intricately yet tersely arranged, jazz-inflected melodies and lyrics in Berber, Arabic, French and English, Zarra has carved out a niche for herself which manages to be completely unique yet very accessible. She’s got an excellent, pan-global band behind her, including keyboardist Michael Cain (fresh off a potently lyrical performance on Brian Landrus’ latest album), guitarist Francis Jacob, bassist Mamadou Ba, drummer Harvey Wirht, oudist/percussionist Brahim Fribgane and violist Jasser Haj Youssef. All but two of the songs here are Zarra originals.

The quiet blockbuster here is Amnesia. Sung in French, it fires an offhandedly scathing, vindictive, triumphant salvo at a racist politician (Nicholas Sarkozy?) over a hypnotic Afrobeat pop tune as Joni Mitchell might have done it circa 1975, balmy verse followed by a more direct chorus. Your time is over, Zarra intimates: all the kids behind you are playing the djembe. Leela, by Abdel Rab Idris, is a gorgeous, sparse update on a Fairouz-style ballad with rattling oud, austere piano and gentle electric guitar – it wouldn’t be out of place in Natacha Atlas’ recent catalog. Kicking off with Zarra’s trademark resolute, nuanced vocals, Tamazight (Berber Woman) is the closest thing to North African Sade here, right down to the misty cymbals on the song’s hypnotic bridge, and the fetching call-and-response with the backing vocals on the chorus.

The title track pairs a reggaeish verse against a jaunty turnaround, Zarra throwing off some coy blue notes – it’s a vivid portrayal of the search for love in a distant place. Zarra’s casual, heartfelt vocalese – she doesn’t scat in any traditional jazz sense – carries the terse, gently imploring Houaira, and later, No Borders, an instrumental by Ba featuring some clever harmonies between bass and voice. Sung in French, Issawa’s Woman pensively recalls a woman watching her fantasy and reality diverge, Cain’s spacy, reverberating electric piano ringing behind her. Other tracks, including the knowing ballad Mossameeha and the breezy Mon Printemps, give Zarra room to cajole, seduce and show off a genuinely stunning upper register. It’s worth keeping in mind that even in the age of downloading, Sade’s Warrior album sold in the megamillions. As the word gets out, this one could resonate with much of that audience as well. Zarra plays the cd release show for the album with her band at the Jazz Standard on April 19, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM.

April 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment