Jean-Michel Pilc: Rocket Man

Jean-Michel Pilc image 0
Jimmy Katz

Jean-Michel Pilc

No one knows better than Jean-Michel Pilc that playing jazz isn’t rocket science. The pianist graduated from France’s leading telecommunications research university, a degree that led to a four-year gig in the mid-1980s as a scientist with the French space agency, Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, or CNES. But launching satellites couldn’t compete with Pilc’s passion for music, particularly his love of jazz.

“Every evening I went back home and practiced on the piano for five or six hours,” says Pilc, 45. “Sometimes I even left my job at lunchtime and instead of eating I practiced two hours at home.”

Pilc gave up his CNES job in 1987 to devote himself to music full time, performing with French jazz stars Martial Solal, Michel Portal and Daniel Humair, while also gaining experience with traveling American players such as Randy Brecker, Dave Liebman, James Moody, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Archie Shepp. Since arriving in New York City a decade ago, he’s established himself as one of the more consistently inventive players on the scene. Through his work with saxophonists Sam Newsom and Rudresh Mahanthappa, who have each forged vivid, rhythmically compelling group sounds by incorporating, respectively, West African and Indian musical forms, Pilc has emerged as a player fully alive to jazz’s infinite possibilities.

But Pilc’s musical vision is best expressed in the extraordinary trios he’s created. In 2004, he toured nationally with bassist Francois Moutin, his earliest jazz collaborator, and drummer Ari Hoenig. And in late 2005 he released Live at Iridium (Dreyfus), a galvanizing session that focuses on his spiky original compositions and features drummer Mark Mondesir and bassist Thomas Bramerie. The pianist has clearly come a long way since he toiled for CNES.

“Even when I was supposedly a scientist, music was already my passion,” Pilc says. “I still love mathematics, but when people talk to me about my life as a scientist I feel like they’re talking about someone else I don’t know.”

While Pilc studied the European classical tradition as a child, he is mostly self-taught when it comes to jazz. An avid listener who grew up in a house well-stocked with vintage recordings by Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and Duke Ellington, he mostly played solo before he met up with the gifted Moutin twins, bassist Francois and drummer Louis, when they were all attending the same university in the early ’80s. Together they undertook an intensive education, soaking up the post-World War II jazz tradition.

“For us, school was listening to records, Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane,” Pilc says. “Then go to the piano and try to reproduce it, understand it, make transcriptions. For me that was the way to learn.”

Pilc moved to the U.S. in 1995, and got his first widespread exposure not in a jazz combo but with the ever-dashing vocalist Harry Belafonte. He landed the gig through bassist Richard Bona, who was working as Belafonte’s music director. Bona figured that Pilc and his boss would strike an instant musical bond and he was right: Pilc went on to spend five years on the road with Belafonte.

When he wasn’t touring with Belafonte, Pilc forged many of his most important musical connections at Small’s, when the East Village jazz spot served as an unofficial headquarters for many rising young players. It was at a Small’s jam session that Pilc and Hoenig first played together, a moment they both recall as a mutual epiphany.

“I was blown away by his playing,” says Hoenig, the electrifying Philadelphia-raised drummer best known for his work with pianist Kenny Werner. “It sounded like exactly the direction I was going, which was rare to find, and I wanted to play with him as much as possible. I realized, ‘Here’s a guy I can learn from, benefit from.’ His playing is constantly evolving. Some players have their own rhythmic or harmonic concept, and he seems to have all of that. A truly one-of-a-kind musician.”