Pilc Celebrates Improv Freedom in Montreal


“It’s a vibrant scene, impressive for the size of the town,” Pilc said of Montreal. “And it is more about exchange than competition.”

(Photo: Sharonne Cohen)

It was June 2021, just after the end of an extended COVID-19 lockdown, that Alive–Live At Dièse Onze, Montréal, a new album by pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, was recorded. It was a special moment for anyone yearning for human connection, and the return of live music.

Some eight months later, on a snowy Friday in February, DownBeat returned to Dièse Onze, a mainstay of the Montreal jazz scene, for the album’s release party. Pilc’s debut on Justin Time Records, Alive features bassist Rémi-Jean LeBlanc and drummer Jim Doxas, two of Montreal’s most prominent sidemen, and gifted leaders in their own right.

A prolific Paris-born pianist with a distinct style and a penchant for spontaneity, Pilc spent two decades in New York before relocating to Montreal in 2015 to teach at McGill University. “I like the vibe very much, the high level and dedication of the students, and the fact that it’s about music and art, not about competition and efficiency of training,” he mused in a post-concert interview. “We are forming musicians, not race horses, and in that respect, I admire the work of my colleagues here. Sharing the passion is what it’s all about.”

Immersed into the Montreal jazz community, Pilc has played the city’s clubs as a leader, co-leader or sideman on a regular basis. “It’s a vibrant scene, impressive for the size of the town. And it is more about exchange than competition which, after 20 years in NYC, is quite refreshing.”

An autodidact, Pilc’s mastery of both Western classical music and the jazz canon, especially jazz piano, are evident. Multifaceted and immensely inventive, adventurous and unpredictable, his playing draws on a vast body of music from baroque to bebop and beyond, evoking Bud Powell, Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk, oscillating between tender and poignant to angular and emphatic.

Pilc’s performances are completely improvised, with no set list or pre-planning. In his album notes, he shares how he takes the stage “as a newborn, ready for a new life, a new journey, a new experience, every time.” Witnessing Pilc’s attentiveness to bandmates throughout the evening’s two exhilarating sets, it became clear that Doxas and LeBlanc were as much part of this experience as the pianist. “Every note they play becomes part of this life we are living together on the stage,” Pilc said.

The ever-evolving “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise” opened this set of extended explorations of standards and originals. At close to 15 minutes, it offered a deep dive into what would be in store. Navigating phases and moods, the trio at turns becomes tender and bluesy, then blistering into a thunderous roar. The recording captured the audience’s warm reception, and Doxas’ breathless, satisfied “Wooh!” after the final note is played.

Next comes “11 Sharp,” one of two Pilc originals — a reference to the “blue note,” or sharp 11th, which translates into French as dièse onze, the name of the club. Alternating rhythmically, melodically and emotionally, it is followed by two Miles Davis staples — the lyrical “Nardis” and a temperamental rendition of “All Blues,” which, over the course of an extended workout, whispers and soars with intensity. Doxas rides the cymbals, propelling the music with equal parts inventiveness and emotion, while LeBlanc shifts the dynamics with an intimate solo. Pilc, quoting Stravinsky, flies across the piano, the audience enthralled.

Closing the album is the title track “Alive,” a fully improvised piece showcasing a signature aspect of Pilc’s playing — right and left hands completely independent, like two separate players, as if one alone can’t possibly express everything he yearns to convey.

With the magic of improvisation woven into his very being, Pilc co-led a three-year improv workshop project at McGill. Participants included jazz and classical musicians — both faculty members and students. “The beauty of this project,” Pilc said, “is that it abolishes the separation between jazz, classical and other styles, and also the separation between composer, improviser, instrumentalist and conductor. So, in a way it’s a return to how it was until the 20th century, when those activities split, and people became more specialized, and different styles of music became separated from each other.”

Many of the improvisation sessions took place in Montreal venues, allowing the music to develop in a natural framework, and enabling a large audience to discover the “often poorly understood or even misunderstood possibilities” of collective improvisation — which, as Pilc sees it, leads to true instant composition when practiced with consistency and rigor. Participants gained a new perception and new knowledge of this practice, having “an essential influence on their artistic development, their future work and their educational activity.” The project’s archive, available online, expands this process to a wide range of musicians and students around the globe.

“Pilc has really influenced the way people play here,” remarked Randy Cole from a neighboring table during the intermission. Cole, a Montreal filmmaker creating insightful, well-crafted projects on the local jazz scene, noted how “even some of the more straight-ahead players are quite adventurous on stage with him. His ideas about how to improvise have rippled out through the scene. I think it was kind of freeing.”

Bassist LeBlanc shared a similar impression. “Playing with Pilc has been a huge learning experience for me,” he said. “I had never played with someone as adventurous and free as he is, and it definitely unlocked the gates to a dimension of collective improvisation that I hadn’t been exposed to.” The album — “a snapshot of a very particular moment” following two years during which the trio hadn’t played together — encapsulates this sense and vulnerability, and at the same time “made it feel like your favorite pair of slippers that you dug up years later.”

The album’s notes open with Pilc reflecting on how his vinyl collection includes treasured items on which “the sound is not perfect, but you can hear improvising musicians in their natural habitat, the jazz club, playing music for the sake of music, never repeating themselves, and creating sounds that they will never replicate.” The only thing Pilc aims to replicate in his performances is that sense of adventure. There was a tangible feeling of heightened, wide-ranging emotion at Dièse Onze the night Alive was recorded. And so, despite its technical limitations, Pilc made the decision not to keep it under wraps, benefiting from Guy Hébert’s skillful mastering.

“The music was vital to us and to the audience,” Pilc writes. It’s clear why he felt compelled to release this set, documenting not only a singular night, but also the vibe at this intimate, welcoming club with an appreciative audience. “Every performance is a new trip … but it always feels organic, vital and alive. It’s a communion, really, among us three and with the audience, and the club is perfect for that.” DB

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