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Jean-Michel Pilc: What Is This Thing Called?

Budd Kopman By

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Pianist Jean-Michel Pilc has produced an extraordinary musical document with the release of What Is This Thing Called?.

Superficially, the CD is a set of improvisations on Cole Porter's tune "What Is This Thing Called Love?," and it can be listened to in that manner. However, it is really an invitation into Pilc's sound world, his musical mind and his emotional being, and as such, it is very intimate. Accepting the invitation makes for a thrilling and intense ride, and quite possibly the tune will never be heard the same way again.

Pilc is a self-taught musician with enormous technique and very open and sensitive ears. Musicians are special people in that they understand the language of music implicitly; they gestalt the logic of its structure at the same time they react to the emotions it creates. The best of them don't think about what they do, they feel the 'now' as having been prepared by the 'past,' and almost instantly choose what is to happen in the future from a myriad of possibilities.

Given the fact that Pilc went to the studio several times during the month of April, 2014 attempting to just play without any preparation, the question must be asked, "Why this particular tune?." What is it about this tune that drew Pilc to it, and for that matter, why is this tune among the most recorded by jazz musicians?

The first thing that anyone should do before listening to this album is to get the tune "in their ears." Only then can one hear and feel how Pilc keeps the tune recognizable while altering its harmonies and structure almost to the breaking point.

While this is not the place for an in-depth dissection of "What Is This Thing Called Love?," a glance at the sheet music, combined with how it sounds, gives some hints as to its popularity in general and its allure for Pilc. Important also are the lyrics, (just ask Lester Young), including the introduction.

Is it happy or sad? Is it in a major or a minor key? How does it manage to pack so many aural surprises within the standard 32-bar AABA structure, while sounding completely natural and inevitable? The closer one listens, the more one appreciates how cleverly Cole Porter controls the ambiguity he purposefully creates, and, in the end, making the effort sound nonchalant.

Musicians have responded strongly to all that is within this tune since it was first performed in 1929, and Pilc is no exception.

Pilc prepares the way by starting with "C Scale Warmup," which combines the technical with a hint of how deeply Pilc hears even such a simple thing as a major scale. The tune proper occupies track two, played straightly enough to serve as a ground for the variations to follow.

The twenty-nine tracks which follow range from under a minute to the closing six and a half closing extravaganza of "Now You Know What Love Is." Played in many different styles, which varying densities and tempos (with even a gesture towards Chopin in "Waves," track 15), the improvisations never tire the ear despite the intensity of concentration required from Pilc and the listener.

What Is This Thing Called? is a bravura performance and a gift from Pilc for anyone who wishes to pull back the curtain a bit and watch (and hear) a master improviser at work. Fascinating and exhilarating, this record practically demands multiple listens.

Track Listing: C Scale Warm Up; What Is This Thing Called Love; Cole; Dawn; Walk; Run; Glide; Look; Cross; Giant; Time; Prelude; Duet Vox; Waves; Martial; Duke; Factor; More; Quick; Odd; Grace; Float; High; Ode; Chimes; Dance Elegy; Bells; Swing; Now You Know What Love Is.

Personnel: Jean-Michel Pilc: piano

Title: What Is This Thing Called? | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Sunnyside Records

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