From Paris to New York and across the world, Jean-Michel Pilc has taken his lifelong passion for jazz piano into the homes and festivals of countless fans. He talked to Kreol about what people and events have inspired him throughout his career, and whether inspiration is even necessary to understand.

“Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker”, says Jean-Michel Pilc when asked what was the first song he could remember hearing. “I loved it right away and still do. The epitome of music for children, apparent simplicity and incredible sophistication all in one.”

It’s a rather stereotypical answer, but a valid one none-the-less. Tchaikovsky’s world-famous score for the late 19th century ballet has become one of his best-known and most loved compositions of all time. And as an expert and admirer like Pilc will know well, there’s some stiff competition in that category.

Yet, unlike what could arguably be called his initial source of inspiration – a phrase he’d probably hate – Pilc never received the kind of tutoring the pioneering Russian composer was given as a minor. Instead, Pilc’s had a self-taught route, learning the art of jazz piano through his own research and experimentation.

Such humble beginnings would lead to numerous live performances, a series of albums both with others and alone, and even a documentary courtesy of John McCormick which was released in 2009. He’s had the honour of performing alongside many key artists of his genre and era, from Roy Haynes to Dave Liebman and Jean Toussaint. No doubt they felt the honour of playing alongside him too.

A talented Parisian family

Born in Paris in 1960, he may have been the only member of his family to take his love for music to a professional level, but he certainly wasn’t the only talented one. “My mother was an excellent amateur singer and there were other music lovers in my family, my uncles especially, who made me discover lots of great music, classical and jazz mainly. So, I wouldn’t say I am the only one with a gift; just the only one who chose to pursue it and make it a profession”.

“I learned from my recordings, they were my true teachers. They did not influence me, they taught me. Same as a kid learns how to speak from his parents, I learnt the language of music from Satchmo, Bix, Bird, Ludwig Van, Wolfgang and so many others.”

In his mid-thirties, he moved to New York, the city in which he currently resides as a newly Naturalised American citizen. The CDs he released there as part of a trio with Francois Moutin on bass and Ari Hoenig on drums would move him on his way to signing a record deal with Dreyfus Jazz, culminating in their first album ‘Welcome Home’ in 2002. Although he continued to produce work with both men, two years later he reached a new landmark by releasing his first solo album, ‘Follow Me’.

Jean-Michel Pilc

Recorder to Piano and beyond

Yet in contrast to the fame, he would later secure with his fingertips on piano keys, it was on the air holes of a recorder that their musical instinct was first expressed. “[I would play] all kind of tunes I heard on TV or radio, French songs of that time, some of them not so good. But it was lots of fun feeling what I heard inside of me being turned into sound. I was learning how to speak, and the recorder was my first tongue.”

Naturally, he moved onto his signature instrument eventually. “I was seven-years-old, and a charming old lady taught me the rudiments, technique, reading, easy classical pieces. I adored her, plus she always had delicious honey in her kitchen. At that age I didn’t have any challenge – yet – just love for the music, enthusiasm and, already, the urge to improvise, which she mildly and kindly tried to rein in. Without success, obviously.”

Her failure in this respect was everyone else’s blessing as, 13 years after initially embracing the white keys, Pilc was readying himself to perform in public for the first time. “I must have been 20-years-old, at my college. I played a couple of be-bop tunes including “Scrapple From the Apple”, if I remember well. Solo piano, nothing less. I was scared, excited, devastated and exhilarated all at once. I had no idea how to deal with all these very contradictory emotions. And I still don’t, which is good – preserve the mystery. But I am much more relaxed now.” He would later go on to play in front of around 10,000 at the Taishung Jazz Festival in Taiwan.

Touring & Inspiration

He admits to missing his family when away on tour, although he’s rarely alone when on the road. The list of artists he’s collaborated with appears never-ending at first and, for him, it’s the moment you’re experiencing right then that always feels like the most memorable. “When music happens and you feel inspired, nothing else exists, in space or time. I’ve been lucky to experience it quite a few times in my life, with some exceptional musicians who are, like I often say, a world by themselves. As Schopenauer brilliantly said, ‘Music is the universe once again’.”

He’s pretty vague when it comes to which of these great musicians have inspired him. In fact, he’s not too keen on the idea of analysing this in the first place. “Things simply happen and sometimes there is no explanation – and so no explanation is needed. Preserving the mystery is important, especially when it comes to inspiration. Regarding the latter, my sources of inspiration are so diverse and multiple that a list or a hierarchy would not make sense. My attraction and admiration tend to work in cycles: for example, recently I listened only to Schubert for a month, then it will switch to something else.”

Wherever this elusive inspiration comes from, it has led to him adopting a technical ability that has received comparisons with the likes of McCoy Tyner, Cecil Taylor and Michel Petrucciani. His left-hand, almost ambidextrous approach to playing is one of his more peculiar styles, although he doesn’t like to give it a name. “Names, jazz or else, don’t mean much to me. Sound, feeling, sensation, emotion, that is all that matters as far as I am concerned. Music is music, period”.

“My sound is something so intimate to me, there is nothing I can say about it. It’s kind of like ‘What do you think about yourself?’ All I can hope for is that my sound, whatever it is, conveys emotions and feelings that listeners can feel in turn. I am a receiver and emitter of music.”

The master goes to teach

In more recent years, he’s moved beyond playing music to teaching it as well. A faculty member at NYU Steinhardt between 2006 and 2015, he’s since joined McGill University’s jazz faculty in Montreal, taking his place as an Associate Professor. He sees his main role as “to transmit the love, curiosity, passion and fire that a musician should feel for his or her art.”

In fact, it was one of his students who inspired him to write what was later to become his debut book, ‘It’s About Music – The Art and Heart of Improvisation’. “Reluctant at first to add words to so many already said about music in general and jazz in particular – already too many, I think – I still compiled these notes every evening while my young newborn twins were sleeping. Maybe subconsciously I did it for them, to leave them something, my philosophy so to speak. Anyway, I felt inspired and went the whole way.”

Stay young all my life!

Asking what message he would pass on to the youth of today, a generation his young children will grow up as part of, he was brief yet candid. “Stay young all your life.” And a wish for himself as well? “Stay young all my life!”