Taken from two nights of clearly inspired performances, Jean-Michel Pilc’s Essential stretches the boundaries of piano music. Like other great players today, Pilc virtually attacks the instrument and leaves no stone unturned. He’s not confined to the bench or even the keys, plucking the strings and peeking under the hood for all manner of mysterious magic.
Essential uncovers the magic for all of us, engaging with 18 boundless tracks of improvised work. There are some standards and favourites, sure, but Pilc lets his spirit soar throughout each movement and the sky is the limit. When he rumble through “Take the A Train,” for instances, the low rolls and banging attack make the Strayhorn classic something different and enticing.
Recorded at the Fazioli Piano Loft at the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway, New Jersey, Essential plays out on a perfectly-tuned Fazioli F-228 piano.
Opening with a Pilc original, “J & G,” is a smart move. The piece is airy and enjoyable, beginning with simple, light chording. He builds it gorgeously into Ellington’s genius “Caravan,” playing a game with the pedals as he roars through the piece bouncily. The offhand portions add drama, while his plucking contextualizes everything in a spirit of adventure and mystery.
Pilc’s sense of pure drama elevates numbers like “Too Young to Go Steady” and the moody traditional “Scarborough Fair” into experiments. On the former, Pilc is delicious delicate at times and seems to barely touch the keys. On the latter, the song is given a frisky spring and is almost unnatural but for the “essential” refrain. Wonderful stuff.
At the core of Essential are Pilc’s “Etudes – Tableaux.” Veering with purpose from pop rhythms and boogie to soft balladry without giving up an ounce of intensity, these numbers, six in all, reveal the artist’s humour and good nature.
Essential is one of those recordings that not only captures the artist at work, it captures the artist at play. Pilc’s mind is wide-open, greeting the gathering audience and the ravishing Fazioli F-228 keys with love and integrity. An intelligent player unafraid of risks, chances and mistakes, Jean-Michel Pilc is impressive and stunning.