A Conversation with Jean-Michel Pilc

Franz A. Matzner By

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For me, music is like love. It?s a mystery and it should remain a mystery. And if you try to break the mystery, you break the thing itself.
Following-up the critically acclaimed trio album Welcome Home, Paris-born composer and pianist Jean-Michel Pilc recently released the stunning album, Cardinal Points, showcasing eight original compositions, including the extended work 'Trio Sonata.' The album was recorded by both Pilc's standing trio and a new quartet, and offers ambitious material of impressive density, depth, and determination. Already well established as a resourceful improviser, Cardinal Points confirms Jean-Michel Pilc as one of today's pre-eminent jazz composers.

It was my distinct privilege to speak with Jean-Michel last week about the album's genesis, as well as many other topics, including his decision to make his home in Brooklyn. A valuable speaker and restless thinker, Pilc comfortably shifts from the most concrete to the most abstract of ideas, examining both with disarming ease, confidence, and openness. Pilc never seems satisfied with the easy, expected answer, a propensity which often led us into unexpected territory.

All About Jazz: I think the best place to begin is with the new release. It's a very complex album. There seems to be a tremendous collision of influences, and I don't just mean genre wise. You can hear a lot of musical voices from a lot of regions being blended together. I was wondering if you could go into the genesis of the album a little?

Jean-Michel Pilc: Well, first of all I don't really sit and decide to write an album of music. I don't really work that way. As an artist, I don't believe in intentionality, or music with a concept. It may not be the answer you were hoping for, but I have to be honest, right? It's like sex, the less you are wearing the better it is.


JMP: Or to put it another way, it's the difference between the talk of politicians and normal persons. If you listen to politicians, in their speeches they have intentions and concepts in what they are saying. They sound very convincing. Actually they convince lots of people with what they are saying. But they don't sound normal. If you listen to them, they will never, ever, ever sound like normal people expressing themselves. Or very rarely. It's very special when they do. Everybody knows they are lying . But when a normal person talks to you, you just listen to what the person says in a very natural way. You don't need to be convinced. There's no [intention] in what they are saying, its just human communication'more basic. For me, music is interesting when it falls into the second category, not into the first. I have this problem with people who have lots of concepts and intentions in music. I think it sounds like politics. It sounds like they are trying to convince people with a whole bag of tricks, and for me music is much more simple than that. It's an expression of my voice and if I convince people with it'I hope I do'it's not my goal. I have no goal, actually. I have no choice. I'm just speaking with my own voice and if this is to the liking of some people listening, then great. It's a very natural process. I'm like a little child when music goes through me. I'm just a little child that lets music go through me and I don't have any concept, intention, or goal. I'm just a music emitter. All those things on the record are things that I hear, and things that I feel. It's based on the feeling, not on a goal or a concept. Those words are really foreign to me.

AAJ: What you're bringing up is quite interesting to me. This idea of a 'music emitter' or a conduit. I'm fascinated by the connection between music and the unconscious, and the way music is used in a lot of religious, mystical, and other, ceremonies to circumvent the conscious.

JMP: For me, I'm a complete atheist. I have no mystical strength in me at all. Really. I say I'm an atheistic person. I don't believe in god. I just believe that nature'whatever you call it'gave us an incredible tool which is the human brain and that tool has'over millions and billions of years'come to a point where this tool is even stronger than yourself. [This] means there are whole parts of your brain which function that you don't know anything about that people call the unconscious. But I think it is even more than that. It's the whole thing that works in you that you are not aware of. I think music is a powerful medium to access that energy that you have no consciousness about'this dark energy that I call it sometimes. You let it out in the purest, most authentic way, the most moving way, and that's one of the strengths of music. That's what people call inspiration. The music comes out of you and you have no idea why it comes out, where it comes from. Sometimes when I play I feel as if I'm not playing anymore, as if I'm standing on the stage and the music is just going through me.

AAJ: So many musicians'artists of every kind'describe similar things. There's a point at which the language starts speaking you.

JMP: Exactly. That's what Picasso used to say. 'Painting uses me, I don't paint' and music uses me. I think, of course, with technology we'll find a way to explain what happens in the human brain in these moments, but I'm sure it would be useless to find out. It should remain a mystery. It's a beautiful mystery. It's like love. How come you fall in love with one person and not another? For me music is like that. How come you say that and not this? For example, to come back to your previous questions, let's suppose someone has a concept in love. I should fall in love with such and such a person'like you read in the ads sometimes. You know, that's terrible. Young white male looking for young'

AAJ: Right, young white male pianist looking for theme and variations!

JMP: Right, exactly. So you know for me, music is like that. There are some people who do music like in the ads, and some people who just look for love. For me, music is like love. It's a mystery and it should remain a mystery. If you try to break the mystery, you break the thing itself.

AAJ: Talking about things that are subconscious or those things that are outside the music, as far as forms of inspiration, I think there is a'first of all, I was going to preface this whole conversation by saying that I think there's a misunderstanding that all artists do is think and talk about their work'so I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about other things that you do, that influence you. Outside of music, where do you seek your experience and inspiration?

JMP: Well, like Thelonious Monk used to say'I think it's one of the most incredible quotes in the history of art'talking about music is like dancing about architecture. When you say that, you've said everything. Talking about music is nonsense. You know, words are almost the reverse of music.

What inspires me is everything in life'I love nature. For example, looking at a tree or looking at an animal is enough to give me inspiration. Walking in the woods, or walking in the field, a park, or in the city sometimes. It depends on where of course. Not in the subway. Well, even then, you might be inspired by the subway in some way. Also, the people I see. The people I talk to. The person I live with, the person I love. Everything, I think, influences me. What you eat, what you drink, what you experience in life good moments bad moments, it all goes to your brain and stays there and after awhile you have something to say. That's what is beautiful about all human activities. What you live goes through you and right to creation. That's a beautiful process.

I would also say that what inspires me as a musician is the people with whom I'm playing. This is very essential. People forget that. They see bands where you have a leader and everyone around the leader playing what he is supposed to play'nothing much happens. I think for me it's very important to play with people with very strong personalities, that bring to the music' something special, something unique. It's very important to be surrounded by people like that, as I was lucky to be on this last album. Otherwise, I'm bored and nothing happens. I lose my inspiration.

AAJ: How important do you think it is to play with the same people over a long period of time, as you have been with your standing trio?

JMP: Well, I think it's not very important. Lately, I've been playing with other musicians because we all have availability problems. So I've been playing with other drummers and bassists'.and it's been exhilarating. You know, it doesn't matter. When I played with Ari and Francois the first time, it was already there. If you play with a musician with whom you are meant to play, it generally clicks right away. You know, after two seconds. In the course of years you develop something deeper, and that's very important of course. I think we did with this trio. But it's not so important as this initial connection that works. For example when I played with Ari, or Mark, a few years back it clicked right away. From the very first concert we did together and we had not even rehearsed'..it's like a switch in your brain and suddenly you feel great. The years bring more depth, more understanding, but it can also go the other way and bring more automatism, routine, eventually boredom, and you have to change groups.

AAJ: How do you describe that first connection? What brings two musicians together like that?

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.

JMP: I should have talked more carefully, actually, because that piece does not respect the sonata form per se. The writer from Jazz Times is quite right when he says it is not a sonata form in the strict since. That's true. For me, I had something more like Lizst or Scriabin's sonatas I mind. Sonatas which are not precisely sonata forms, but sound like sonatas. Who knows why? They should not, but they do. The sonata for me'it was more the combination of different melodies that come back at different times and provide a sense of unity. I wanted to avoid the caricatures of the late modern thing, where the melody comes in every ten seconds so that people can remember it's the same tune. Like this in Berlioz's Symphonie Phantastique'a beautiful symphony, I love it. It's a masterpiece'but that motif thing is so heavily put to use. Still, I wanted to give it a sense of unity, and I think for a composer [the sonata form] is a very powerful catalyst. You think differently. You feel differently. I'm not building a little piece of furniture here, I'm building a whole house. A bridge. I'm building a city.

AAJ: It sounds different, than say, a suite.

JMP: The first part of the album is more like a suite, actually. It's important for a suite to have some sort of consistency, but it's not the same thing. For me, a suite is more like when you drive a car. You see a first city, then a second city, then you see a little village. That's a suite'.and it's consistent because you are driving down this road and they happen one after the other, even though they are changing all the time. For me, a sonata is more like a city. And you have to build that city. That entity.

AAJ: I'm going to shift again and ask about your decision to move to New York.

JMP: You know, in life as in music, I follow my instincts! I was born and raised in Paris, so I'd spent thirty-four, thirty-five years there. After all these years I felt, is that it? Is it going to be like this until the day I die? And being an atheist, I don't believe in another life. So I thought I'd better make the most of this one now. I felt it was very incomplete. I knew only life in Paris, the musicians in Paris'some of them being really great. I was having a lot of fun. But I felt my life was not complete. I needed to know other things. So I moved to New York. I was a jazz musician, so that sounded like a logical choice. And I liked it. So I decided to stay. I've learned lots of things. Not really about music, I have to say, because the great music is on the records and in Europe there are great musicians, even if American people are not necessarily aware of it. I learned a lot about myself because I was in a new environment with people having different reactions and different ways of thinking. It changed me a lot. It gave me a lot of confidence. It made me aware of things I had been totally unaware of.

AAJ: I was wondering if it was also a business decision?

JMP: Of course, it was partly this. I have to be honest about it. When you make a jazz career in Europe, it's always like second-rate. People who are known in Europe, nobody knows them here. Except for the very, very rare exception. I'm not sure there is one. Basically, everyone on the planet knows the people who are known here. No one in America knows the people in Europe. So basically you are the opening act, or the second act at the festivals, and you see always the American musician getting the best part of it. And you think, why not me?

AAJ: That leads to a different question. Which is really what I wanted to ask. There seems to be a contradiction in that. Europe, Japan, Scandinavia, they consume a large amount of jazz. They follow jazz. You can pack stadiums there, and in America, there's much less overt interest.

JMP: It's almost like French food. It's respected everywhere, but the place it makes the most money is not in France. I can tell you more people go to expensive French restaurants in New York than in Paris! Jazz was born and raised in America. Jazz is universal music that was born in a special place in space time. Again, it's like the big bang. Why was the universe born at that moment, at that place? I guess Einstein would tell me 'place is the wrong term'. But jazz is a big bang that happened in America and could only have happened because of that incredible melting pot. People easily forget that people of all origins are responsible for the birth of that music. That if you listen to Beethoven or Chopin, you have moments that sound like ragtime already. So it's a whole mix between European, African-American, Italian, Jews'everyone. So it was born and raised in America. So now it has that image that it is American. And it is. Let's face it, until recently the greatest creators of that music were like 95, 98 percent American. I think in the recent period jazz got back it's universal character that it had at the beginning. You know, you don't need to be in one special place in space-time to be aware of things now. As a result you have great musicians appearing pretty much everywhere.

I felt this in me when I moved to New York. When you are not from America and you are a jazz musician you feel a lack of confidence. What happens is, it's almost like you are not supposed to be a jazz musician. When I came to New York and I started jamming and I realized they loved my playing, that some of them had maybe never heard things like that, when many of them said 'You're bringing something new here' all my complexes'and many non-American's have this inferiority complex'completely disappeared, I must say. I felt, I am entitled to play this music like anyone else. It's what I say. I am an artists. It doesn't matter that I am French or Jewish, or Black. It doesn't matter. All that matters is that I am me.

AAJ: Do you think you'll ever go back?

JMP: No, I don't think so. I think it is important for me to stay here, where I feel good'When you come to New York you realize that's one of the only places on earth where no one cares about what the others do. You do your thing. You come here, and you do your thing.

Visit Jean-Michel Pilc on the web at www.jmpilc.com.

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