A Review of Jean-Michel Pilc’s “True Story”

Jean-Michel Pilc: True StoryJean-Michel Pilc has a masterful touch, and True Story is a charming record that is a great example of contemporary piano trio jazz. It’s music that is unafraid to be beautiful and, at the same time, unique and modern. Pilc joins the select group of pianists like Vijay Iyer, Bojan Z and Brad Meldhau who are making music very modern and new from the time served piano trio.

Pilc has a wonderful ambidextrous touch and often sounds like two musicians at once and this record in imbued with his personality. The trio communicates at the highest level and the interaction between the musicians is quite delightful. The pianist’s tunes and improvisations work together to create a record which has a great unity of purpose and engages the listener completely.

Jean-Michel Pilc was born in Paris but now lives in New York. He has played with Roy Haynes, Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman, Jean Toussaint, Rick Margitza, Martial Solal, Michel Portal, Daniel Humair, Marcus Miller, Kenny Garrett, Lenny White, Chris Potter, John Abercrombie, Mingus Dynasty and Big Band, Lew Soloff and Richard Bona. He has also worked with Harry Belafonte, as his musical director and pianist. That’s quite a resume. He also teaches jazz at New York University.

Pilc has had a long running trio with Francois Moutin and Ari Hoenig and has a number of recordings with them on CD. For this project, however, he recruits the talents of Boris Kozlov on bass and the great Billy Hart on drums. I know of Kozlov from the More Than Just a Playalong Mingus CD, and he was great on that. The Russian born bassist has been in demand as a player with the likes of Roswell Rudd, Bobby Watson, Bob Berg, Benny Golson, James Moody, Walter Bishop Jr., Michel Petrucciani and Stanley Cowell. He also has a longstanding gig with the Mingus Big Band.

Hart should need no introduction having added his phenomenal musicianship to great recordings by the likes of Pharoah Sanders, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Chris Potter, Eddie Harris, Shirley Horn, McCoy Tyner and Stan Getz.

The CD as a whole contrasts tracks tending towards atmospheric, sparse, delicate playing and more towards intense, turbulent swing. Many of the tracks are refreshingly short but certainly fully formed. Pilc used the pedals wonderfully and often favors harp-like sustain but the most striking thing about his technique is his two handed playing – he sounds ambidextrous and his left and right hands scurry across the keys independently and contrapuntally.

“The Other Night” begins delicately with Pilc’s quiet phrases, Kozlov’s bow and sensitive cymbals from Hart.

“Relic” has Pilc’s chiming, charming crystalline piano introducing Corea-influenced declamatory piano/bass unison statements and the piece develops into a rumbling, flamenco-like ballad. Bass and drums commenting freely on Pilc’s bold phrases.

“PBH Factor” grooves and stomps like Abdullah Ibrahim refracted through shattered crystal. Two handed contrapuntal piano roll on with bass and drums in like mind. Kozlov plays an expressive bluesy solo and Pilc plays rolling piano ostinatos against the rhythm. His left hand is stunningly dexterous as he solo with great freedom and self-belief.

On “A Brief History of Time”, gentle rhapsodic piano and beautiful arco bass set the mood and a solid ballad tempo emerges with Kozlov’s profound bass and Hart’s inventive filigrees. Kozlov alternates between solid pizzicato and chirping arco and the mood is sustained by some beautiful restrained playing by the trio as Pilc improvises a kind of lullaby.

“High Sky – The Elegant Universe” begins with playful piano over a stuttering rhythm; the piano becomes strident over an usual backing of side-stick snare bass drum on the one and Kozlov’s bass before Hart intensifies the beat with cymbals. The unusual theme features rumbling clusters and pentatonic sounds, outside runs and Monkish surprises. There is a unconventional rhythmic brilliance here. This is one of the longer pieces and an impressionistic piano section leads to slow, wide expanses with gorgeously delicate use of notes. On many tracks like this, notes are used preciously as if each one is valued and the band are enjoying the decay of every note. Pilc has so much melody in his playing that there are enough melodies in this section for at least a dozen originals. The return of the original rhythm allows the trio to explore Escher-like rhythmic textures that remind me of Vijay Iyer’s own trio.

“Mornings With Franz” is expansive and expressive. Again, Pilc sounds like two pianos which together with bass and drums lead the listener in a journey around Pilc’s imagination. Melodies at times get a little close to music-box romanticism and delicacy but are transformed by the delicacy of the execution and the passion of the delivery. This piece is wonderfully calm

“Kingston NY” has bubbling, bluesy piano; Billy Harts hints at double-time and Kozlov has a Mingus-like depth and surety. The medium paced swinging piece builds well and Pilc plays some lovely Monkish tumbling lines over Kozlov’s luxurious walking and Hart’s swinging, inventive drumming

“Try to Remember” has resonant, woody bass, skipping cymbal figures and bright intensity from Pilc. Aspects of the melody remind me of Jarrett and Billy Taylor and gorgeous interplay ensues between the trio with Pilc building towering heights of intensity as Kozlov, in particular, supports wonderfully.

A longer piece, “BBB” has Monkish melodic cells and makes me think of silent movie era comedic drama. It leaps along at a pace with Hart and Kozloz swinging wildly. Swirling arpeggios interact with snare rolls and growling bass. There is a free-wheeling intensity created by Pilc in his great solo. Kozlov solos, dark toned and majestic. Rhythmically astute, his solo builds well from low register lines to skipping bebop-ish phrases. Rolling drums interact with thundering piano as the piece swings to an exciting conclusion via two-handed exuberance from Pilc.

“My Heart Belongs to Daddy”, the sole standard, is brilliantly worked – Pilc personalizes the melody completely. The rhythm on this piece is a gorgeous romp midway between swing, march, mambo and tango. It features jaw-dropping exuberance from Pilc, lyrical bass solo and a few bars of inventive syncopation from Hart. Pilc plays with the melody quite brilliantly as the tune returns.

To be completely honest, as a listener, one is a little exhausted by this point after 53 minutes or so, and the suite that follows might be almost too much of a good thing, though it does feature some lovely music.

The suite, “True Story” is in four parts. The first has a dark, tense atmosphere with growling bass, stuttering cymbals and brilliant use of the full register of the piano. Lovely piano/bass ostinatos contrast with sparse treble melodies. The second part is sparse, ruminative and melancholic. The third features a rolling 12/8 rhythm and Pilc plays with the tonality and hints at Classical music. He repeats chiming chords over the quiet intensity of the rolling bass and drum figure. The fourth section which begins in 11/8 has repeated, playful piano figures echoing the second section. The mood is sustained as waves of right hand piano contrast with layers of left hand piano, bass and drums with a constant hi-hat figure. The final section is quiet and pensive and features full use of the sustain pedal as with all the parts of this suite, it features a repetitive melodic line that contrasts with a developing harmonic and rhythmic backing.

This CD is highly recommended for jazz lovers. Jean-Michel Pilc is a fine pianist and this CD is centered around his playing and individual piano style. Kozloz and Hart play more than supporting roles but are certainly self-effacing at times and demonstrate substantial restraint to allow the music to grow organically and allow the leader full expression. The short three minute pieces, especially, are a delight as the trio shows great sensitivity and a mature awareness of the overall shape of the improvised pieces.

True Story will be released on March 23rd, and is available for pre-order.

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