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A Conversation with Jean-Michel Pilc

By Published: November 6, 2003
JMP: For me'it's probably different for other people'but for me it's like suddenly I'm out of myself. When I did a jam session at Small's with Ari back in '96'I'll remember this moment all myself'it was such as powerful moment. I was playing the piano with some cats, jamming, and it was nothing great and I was just playing the piano. I saw my hands on the keyboard. I heard my notes. Whatever, but it was nothing. And suddenly this guy touches the drums and I was out of myself! Which means suddenly I reached another level of consciousness which is actually another level of non-consciousness. I became completely unaware of where I was, of who I was. I was not at Small's anymore. I was part of something bigger which took over. That's what you feel when you play with great musicians. Suddenly you are part of something bigger. It takes over and your ego, your identity, disappears, and that thing takes over. That's what I felt right away with Ari, and a long time ago with Francois. 'You become unaware of the normal world, if I may say that. It's a very powerful feeling.

AAJ: You're talking about this phenomena in the context of playing. I'm curious what you will say about composing.

JMP: Well, composition is even more mysterious. It's very strange. Sometime'now I'm going to say something that is a little bit contradictory to what I said earlier, but life is full of paradox, I'm sure you will forgive me. Sometimes you need a project to have inspiration. You know, I said I just have it all in my head, but when they gave me that grant, from the Chamber Music of America, I had the sonata in my head but it was not really clear. And suddenly because I had to write one, the inspiration kicked in. 'Oh shit, they gave me that money. I have to write something!' And BOOM ideas come. You know they have to come, and it's like you open a tap. Composition is for me like that. There's a tap that opens and closes. Sometimes it's closed, nothing comes out, but sometimes it just opens. Magically. It happens in cycles' I'm not sure what it is triggered by. There's no rule, but very often it's triggered because I hear some specific voices which means some specific musicians and their voice inspires me. I hear things that I want to write for them. It's a little bit like the Duke Ellington process. You have these voices that inspire you and suddenly you feel like writing for those voices. For me it works very well' because I really have his voice in me. So when I write something for him, I can hear him play it. As a result, when they play it for real it almost systematically sounds like the way I envisioned it. In the general quality, of course, then the person transforms it, but in the general quality it works.

AAJ: Is that how the trio sonata happened? Were you writing it for the musicians specifically?

JMP: The trio sonata I would say happened in two steps. The first step was I had lots of ideas which I put down on paper. So I had like twenty-five ideas. Melodies, rhythms and stuff, and I thought, 'I have to put some structure in it.' Actually, it was a special moment in my life because'you know when you are a jazz writer it is rare that you write in a long structure. And actually, I love long structures. I made an album back in France called Big One where the tunes really have a structure one after the other. I like when an album tells a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. I don't like a succession of tunes just for the sake of putting tunes on a cd. But in this particular instance I really felt like I had to compose something that made sense from beginning to end, as one piece. And the great moment in my life came'I was kind of in despair because I had all these ideas and I thought I would never be able to structure them'and then one morning I remember I had this revelation, and then everything just lined up magically. I think it must have already been there in my mind, but I wasn't aware of it, and then there was this fit of consciousness that told me how it would work. In the end, I had the whole sonata.

AAJ: In the notes that you sent with the album you included a statement about the sonata form being one of the most expressive musical structures'

JMP: Yes, right.

AAJ: I'm quite interested in that. Not only in the sonata form musically, but there seems to be an analog between the sonata form and the way it develops themes and so many other forms of writing. Essays, novels, they often have a similar shape of progression.

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