By Peter Hum, 9 October 2019 | OTTAWA CITIZEN
When jazz pianist Jean-Michel Pilc joined McGill University’s Schulich School of Music in 2015, he found out that being a professor also meant applying for peer-reviewed grants.
“I said, ‘That’s not exactly the thing that I know best how to do. But I’ll try,’” recalls Pilc, 58, who was born in France and then spent two decades playing and teaching in New York City before moving to Montreal.
Pilc formulated a proposal, enlisted the help of a professional grant writer, and applied to the Fonds de Récherche du Québec – Société et culture. The fund’s assessors liked what they saw and awarded Pilc’s project $200,000.
“I was surprised as you are,” Pilc says. “I was elated and surprised and also a bit scared, because right now, I have to deliver the goods.”
Outside of academia, Pilc is internationally renowned in jazz circles for his boldly unfettered and virtuosic music-making, usually in solo or trio contexts.
However, the point of his research project — dubbed the Improv Workshop Project, or IWP — is to study how a larger ensemble of seven or eight people can “find ways to make great music that’s not planned in advance at all, or very little.”
The IWP is entering the third of its three years and will perform in Montreal Thursday night at Le Ministère (4521 Boul. Saint-Laurent) as part of L’Off Festival de Jazz de Montréal. The project also frequently plays at Resonance Café on Tuesday nights, and its upcoming gigs there are on Oct. 29 and Nov. 12.
The project draws from a diverse group of about 50 musicians, Pilc says. Along with him, key players are fellow McGill jazz professors Kevin Dean, who usually plays trumpet in a hard-bop style, and alto saxophonist Rémi Bolduc, who is equally at home playing swinging jazz in the style of Oscar Peterson or intricately plotted, even mathematical music. McGill music students and recent alumni, naturally, are involved in the project en masse. Occasionally, special guests join in, such as New York vocalist Elisabeth Kontomanou, who will sing with the project Thursday.
In the past, saxophonist Sam Newsome and violinist Meg Okura, both U.S. musicians, have joined the IWP.
One of the spurs for Pilc’s project was his disinterest in jazz that strikes him as overly pre-conceived.
“My frustration when I listen to most of modern jazz is that things tend to be very controlled,” he says. “The compositions are very complex in general — lots of odd meters, exotic chord progressions and so forth — and people tend to write a lot before they even step foot on stage.
“Even though the players might be fantastic and the music might be great, I always feels there is something that I personally am looking for in music and I don’t find in that type of situation as a listener.”
Pilc says he’s far from the first person to plumb free music, made without written material to lean on. But he says that he wanted to avoid “what I call free jazz, which means people make all kinds of noises and there is not much melody and rhythm or if there is, it can be a bit chaotic, everybody plays all the time and in the same time.
“I wanted to go and see how by improvising completely with such a group of people, we could create something that sounds really like a composition, like something that actually could have been written beforehand.”
With willing collaborators, Pilc has met on more or less a weekly basis, recording sessions on video to scrutinize the process after the heat of the moment. Participants keep journals of their experiences, adding another dimension to the project. All aspects of the project are posted at its website, improvworkshopproject.com.
Most of the project’s participants, while conversant in jazz playing, are less familiar with entirely improvised playing. Pilc counts himself among them. “To be quite honest with you, until recent years, I was myself scared to do it,” he says.
“But it’s interesting, those people are going to want to discover something about themselves that they didn’t know before. They’re going to participate to the collective ‘writing,’ in the moment, which in my mind is what this project is about.
“I call it paperless instant composition if you want to be more specific,” he says.
In the fall of 2018, a year after the project was launched, it landed the regular gig at Resonance Cafe. “We got lucky,” Pilc says. “That changed completely the course of the project to me, because playing live every other week changed completely the spirit.”
So far, the project has yielded several big discoveries, Pilc says.
The first is that the project “has a personality, almost like it was a person,” regardless of who is taking part, he says.
“There is this thing that transcends the musicians who are contributing, an interesting phenomenon of a certain mental state, that tends to instil itself, no matter who the musicians are.”
Secondly, Pilc says the project has helped him rediscover the importance of the the most basic fundamentals of music.
“We had to use very simple techniques and ideas so that the music would really work,” he says.
“The simpler the original idea, the better the music, in the way…Even if the music ends up being very complex, the original idea at the core of that music was simple.
“Simple melodies, simple rhythms, simple chords, simple ideas… simple anything. Simplicity leads to clarity, I think,” Pilc says.
He continues: “My goal for the last year of this project will be to go toward even more simplicity. To make music that’s even clearer, that’s even more transparent, that’s less encumbered by unnecessary clutter or overplaying of you know, just notes.
“I think we’re on the right path to that. I’m happy with where we’re going and what we’re exploring.”
Improvisation Workshop Project at L’Off Festival
Featuring Jean-Michel Pilc, Kevin Dean, and Rémi Bolduc, and Elisabeth Kontomanou
When: Thursday, Oct. 10, 8 p.m.
Where: Le Ministère, 4521 Boul. St-Laurent, Montréal
Admission: $30, $20 for students, seniors 65 and older
Musicians: Jean-Michel Pilc (piano), Kevin Dean (trumpet), Rémi Bolduc (alto saxophone), Élisabeth Kontomanou (voice). Claire Devlin (tenor saxophone), Pierre Mendola (flute), Ananda Suddath (guitar), Mike de Masi (bass), Louis-Vincent Hamel (drums)