Jean-Michel Pilc on starting afresh in Montreal and at McGill

Published: 10 November 2015

(article from the Ottawa Gazette)   During his 55 years, pianist Jean-Michel Pilc has repeatedly embraced change headlong.

In his 20s, the Paris-born Pilc 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 trans-Atlantic move, Pilc says: “I was resetting myself, you know, and I love that feeling.”

He rose to become a globally acclaimed pianist — he was touring Asia earlier this month — and 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. But 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 and Grill on 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.

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?

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.

How would you compare the jazz education experience at McGill versus NYU?

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.

What goals do you have as a professor and a musician in Montreal?

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 traveling 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.

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