By Peter Hum, November 11, 2015 | Montreal Gazette
During his 55 years, pianist Jean-Michel Pilc has repeatedly embraced life-altering changes.
In his 20s, the Paris native worked as an engineer, although jazz was his after-hours passion. At 27, the self-taught pianist, who says he fell in love with jazz at the age of eight, switched to making music full time and was playing with France’s finest jazz artists.
At 34, he moved to Brooklyn to immerse himself in its fertile musical ground. Of that transatlantic move, Pilc says: “I was resetting myself, you know, and I love that feeling.”
He rose to become a globally acclaimed pianist — he recently toured in Asia — and a revered teacher. A passionate educator, Pilc taught aspiring jazz musicians at New York University and three years ago released the book It’s About Music, which delves deep into his artistic philosophy. A few months ago, Pilc and his family moved to Montreal, where he has joined McGill University’s Schulich School of Music.
Below, Pilc, who plays Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill on Thursday, Nov. 12 as part of the club’s 20th-anniversary celebrations, discusses his life’s latest reset, along with what he’s looking forward to as a musician and teacher in Montreal.
Q: Before this fall, you taught at New York University and had been living and working in New York for 20 years. Why did you make the move to McGill University and Montreal?
A: Well, McGill University made me a very attractive offer. Furthermore, after visiting them in March for an interview, I felt really comfortable with the team, the environment, and had a feeling I could do some really good work there.
Also, I like Montreal very much, and 20 years in New York City is already a pretty long time — almost a lifetime. So it was the right moment to move on and start afresh, which I like to do, in life as well as in music.
Q: How would you compare the jazz education experience at McGill versus NYU?
A: Very different, obviously. But to me comparisons are always dangerous, and often sterile. Same with generalizations, which I am allergic to. Every place, every situation, every student, every lesson is different. Again here, music and life are alike, for me, in the sense that every event feels like a totally new experience. I had great experiences at NYU, and great ones at McGill so far, and in both cases, I had some very talented students and outstanding colleagues.
Maybe the main difference is that NYC is very centred on competition, in so many aspects. Here in Montreal, I feel less of that “if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere” thing, which is good because I was getting weary of it myself. Less competition can actually allow more serene and profound things to happen. I have very dedicated and challenging students, with a deep relationship to music, and I enjoy our exchanges very much.
Q: What goals do you have as a professor and a musician in Montreal?
A: Goals … another dangerous word. I prefer the word “process.” And to me, and I never tire of saying it, the artistic process is about love and passion. If I can convey my own love and passion to a student or a group of students, then I have achieved something. And when they send me their own passion in return, and we all learn something from the exchange, teacher and students alike, then we all feel very rewarded. To me, that’s the process.
I also hope to be a good ambassador for the Schulich School of Music, since I am travelling a lot, to many countries. Bringing as many good students as possible there would be wonderful.
As a musician, well, the process remains the same: build deep relationships and create feeling and emotion from new encounters and fresh musical conversations. Again, it’s all about love, and the journey continues.
Q: You’ve played, I read, with Montreal saxophonist Yannick Rieu, and you will be making some music with bassist Fraser Hollins and drummer Jim Doxas. What are you looking for or hoping to find when you try out new musical collaborations?
A: I guess my previous answer says it all. Musicians like Jim and Fraser and Yannick, and others I have already met in Montreal, are powerful, deep, dedicated musicians with whom I already feel the potential for a long, fruitful journey. Furthermore, they have been extremely welcoming, warm and generous. The level of playing is very high, and the vibe is one of a natural and fraternal link between us. I feel confident that we will build something of value together — we have already played a few gigs and there are a bunch coming in the future, which I am really looking forward to.
Q: Tell me a bit about your playing history with New York drummer Ari Hoenig, who will join you at Upstairs.
A: Ari and I is a long story. … We are almost like an old couple now. Every time I play with this man, something special happens. It is almost miraculous, taking into account how many concerts we’ve done together, that it keeps feeling so fresh and new. What we do is very simple: we improvise, we compose in the moment, from scratch. Nothing is set in stone, and the unexpected happens, again and again.
Q: Why did you choose Fraser Hollins to complete the trio for the Upstairs gig?
A: Playing with Fraser a few times, I have found him to be completely open to the unexpected, to the surprise. Many musicians can be destabilized by this approach to music. Not Fraser, who is a very strong and confident player. I am sure his personality will make the triangle work very well. And I love his sound — very important thing, the sound; sometimes it tends to be forgotten.
Q: What other projects do you have on the go or in the wings?
A: Many things: solo, of course, different small band projects with musicians from Montreal, NYC and France, a duo piano recording with Kenny Werner next year for Sunnyside. I also have lots of music written for a medium band (octet), and will start exploring it soon. Being at McGill opens some new possibilities to develop such a project, so I’m eager to see where it goes.
I am in a transition period — lots of options, lots of flux. … Some contacts with different labels which will probably materialize next year as well, in conjunction with the aforementioned projects. Things will probably settle in the next few months and I will be able to tell you more, and more precisely, about it all.