Jean-Michel Pilc

What Is This Thing Called?
(Sunnyside)

Paris-born, New York-based pianist and composer Pilc is known for his highly personal creative impulses. In performance, he comes across as a fun-loving trickster, playing his intricate, capricious inventions with a twinkle in his eye when he jolts the audience with a surprise ending. Keys to Pilc’s philosophy of music making are elegantly summarized in his 2012 book It’s About Music: The Art and Heart of Improvisation, a must-read for anyone interested in how the innovative process is harnessed and maximized.

The Frenchman taps both the art and heart sides of the creative equation on What Is This Thing?, a collection of 30 vignettes devoted to exploring different facets of Cole Porter’s classic “What Is This Thing Called Love.” Employing a wide range of techniques, he dissects the well-known melody and repackages it in tidy aural fragments, variations that take their cues from the tune’s rhythms, harmonic progressions and melody line. Some variations seethe as though ignited by a rush of adrenaline. Other takes are calm and crystalline, radiating a classical formality. Regardless, the results are universally captivating.

Pilc utilizes a kind of thematic shorthand, relying on barebones song titles such as “Quick,” “Chimes,” “Glide” and “Float” to signify the targeted mood. In order to ensure that listeners are on the same page, the pianist opens with “C Scale Warm-Up,” which differs greatly from any perfunctory, piano-student-style run-through. Next is his contemplative version of the Porter tune, setting the stage for the flood of variations that follow. On “Glide,” Pilc channels Thelonious Monk. Meanwhile, “Run” has a Tatum-like feel, with a slight hint of stride in the left hand. A surprise inclusion, “Giant” bears traces of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” along with a requisite Porter quote. Cleverly, Pilc ends the set on a gentle, meditative note with “Now You Know What Love Is,” confirming the pianist’s ambitious vision and his singular musicianship. —Mark Holston

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