Jean-Michel Pilc / Ari Hoenig / François Moutin May 17, 20011 Blues Alley Washington, D.C.
Tumultuous, unpredictable, vibrant with variegated rhythms and tempos, shimmering with torrents of sound and spiraling tendrils of color, the Pilc-Moutin-Hoenig Trio's recent performance at Blues Alley proceeded less like an unveiling and more like the exploding of a starthe event emitting a creative shock wave of force, overlapping forms, light, darkness, expanding and contracting space.
The resonating artistic experience created by the Pilc-Moutin-Hoenig Trio is not the product of a carefully constructed composition, nor does it find its underpinnings in the practiced reworking of traditional jazz standards. It is achieved by the shared creative will of longtime band mates Pilc, Francois Moutin
, brought forth sui generis in the moment of each performance. This was composition akin to spontaneous combustion, each moment devouring itself within the birth of the next in a conflagration of self-expression.
No set lists. No tunes. No preconceptions. Instead, undiluted improvisation. When an artist accomplishes this over a single solo, it is impressive. When it is repeated song after song, it is astounding. What separates the Pilc-Moutin-Hoenig Trio is that the band as a unit accomplishes this feat night after night, achieving the freedom and integration often sought after by jazz ensembles, but only rarely fulfilled. Even rarer is when that collective freedom produces a musical experience as emotively convincing and structurally sound, as the trio achieved in its recent performance. Instead of a series of tunes, the audience at Blues Alley was treated to a single continuous, spontaneously created work. Certainly, components of traditional jazz material and some past Pilc compositions could be identified, including "Nardis," "Beginning to See the Light," "Giant Steps," and others. But these components emerged the way common terminology manifests in a conversation, used as references, signals, touchstones and springboards, lasting only briefly before the band shifted in a wholly new direction, often into dramatically uncharted territory. The result was a richly populated musical universe that seemed to breathe in the mind like a physical reality.
One moment during the set's third "movement" began with a short, repeated lyrical phrase accompanied by a gentle, almost abstract rhythm on toms and open snare, Pilc and Hoenig painted a landscape of openness and calm, a minimalist excursion of reflection almost pastoral in character. Capturing the theme, Moutin launched a small waterfall of notes, letting them drip slowly across Pilc's repeated phrase like droplets off tree branches. Without warning, Hoenig changed directions, sending an erratic pattern of snare and rim shots scampering across the soft bed of Moutin's bass line, disrupting Pilc's piano melody. In response, Pilc mimicked the run, adding a series of stronger strokes in the bass register to convert the light pattern into the stomping tread of a lumbering beast. Moutin and Hoenig responded in turn, adding new layers of texture, increasing the dynamics, inserting longer, denser runs, shifting the tempo, joining all these rivulets into a torrent of sound formed out of the now submerged initial phrase. All of this in just a few moments, and the pattern continued over the course of the entire night, one idea spurring the next in a fluid evolution.
Each band member describes the phenomena they have created in differing terms, but all identify freedom and trust as the foundations.
The dedicated iconoclast, Pilc, distrustful of words and definitions, objects to the premise of classification stating, "The idea for us is to create a piece of music on the spot. People are obsessed by the 'what.' What is this? What is that? For us, it is more about how we play. If we play well, we are happy. If we don't, we are not. That is the way to do it. [It] took us time to find out we needed that absolute freedom to really express ourselves. I think what we do is that we don't know what we do. We leave it up to the music. The less we know the best we will play. So that is why sometimes when people ask me what is this, what is that, I say, 'I don't know and I don't want to know.' I want to be as innocent as I can become. If I could revert to complete childhood, I think that would be ideal."
Moutin, who has known Pilc since their early years at university in France, explains it another way. He begins by citing two fundamental principles developed during those early years: hear what you play, play what you hear. Moutin then expands: "Hear what you play. When a musician chooses this injunction as one of his driving principles, he starts a lifelong process of learning how to eliminate from his improvisations the musical statements that don't provide him with an emotional meaning and, at the same time, how to let those that do come to him. The injunction play what you hear, once adopted by the same musician, pushes him to find by himself, in his psychomotor functioning and his instrumental techniquewhat is going to allow him to instantly perform those emotionally loaded musical statements as they come to him. When all musicians in a group are on that one page, which I think is the case in Pilc-Moutin-Hoenig, they have a good chance to manage this kind of fluid interplay."
Hoenig describes the band's dynamic by articulating what happens when playing with a more typical jazz band that follows the standard format: head, solo, trade eights, conclusion. "So, in a band like that, there is something that happens after you play the head out right at the end. What happens is that when you get to that point in a song everyone kind of looks up. They come out of their own little world and they start thinking and listening to each other. And what happens to the music is very strong at that point because everyone starts paying attention. That's the feeling that we are going for all the time. Anything can happen at any time. It doesn't have to be solos, or it can be one solo, or different orders. We can change tempos drastically. We can change from one song to anothertotally out of the blue. There is [never] a situation where we know what is going to happen. That's really what keeps it fun and keeps it engaged."
If it were possible to distill the Pilc-Moutin-Hoenig Trio experience to one word, it might well be "engagement." Total, concentrated engagement between the band members coupled with a demand for audience engagement. In fact, the band should come with a warning label: keep your eyes peeled, your ears attuned, and your mind open because the musical ideas come so fast, are so unpredictable, and flow so freely that unless you are willing to participate actively through close attention, you are liable never to catch-up. Those willing to buy the ticket and take the ride, however, are bound to experience an exciting and unique sonic journey.
Of course, Pilc would probably say all that is nonsense. That the story of the music exists only in the moment of its coming into being, each incarnation distinct and unrepeatable. Or, more likely, he'd reject even that. He might just repeat what he said after the show: "Sometimes people ask me how do I approach the music. I say 'well, I don't.' How do I approach the sun? Well, I don't. It's too hot. So I stay away from it. To me [music]'s exactly the same thing. I feel the warmth, but I don't approach it. Otherwise I destroy it or destroy myself. Which I don't want to doI'm not crazy."