With jazz trio Pilc Moutin Hoenig, anything can happen

Boston Globe, May 18, 2012

When pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, bassist François Moutin, and drummer Ari Hoenig play music together, whether in concert or in the studio recording an album, the plan is always the same: There is no plan.

No sheet music. Nothing discussed in advanced. Only improvisation.

“We go on stage and we don’t know what we’re going to do,” says Moutin. “No set list, no preconceived idea. It’s whatever happens there.”

What happens — one can say this much — is a roiling, vibrant set by a jazz trio that sounds like no other. It’s rhythmic, inventive, potentially wild, and also lyrical and prone to poignant emotion. Pilc might introduce a theme, but so might Moutin, or Hoenig, who has honed his technique to turn the drum kit into an instrument that produces melody.

The other thing that happens is what separates this group from the stereotype of without-a-net improvisation, in which cerebral, eccentric, or abstruse elements can lose the audience, like a novel stubbornly bereft of any plotline.

Not so here. As exemplified by their 2011 album, “Threedom,” a set by Pilc Moutin Hoenig, as the trio is known, contains songs; discrete, discernable songs, songs with motion and structure, including clearly identifiable versions of standards and jazz classics, such as Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” or Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue.”

This balance of the familiar and the abstract, the reassuring and the adventurous, is one this group, which plays Scullers on Wednesday, achieves like no other.

They first honed it during a celebrated run as the Jean-Michel Pilc Trio in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and have taken it further since reuniting in 2010 under their new, leaderless name.

“We realized it couldn’t be anybody’s trio,” says Pilc. “It’s a three-headed creature, a solo entity.”

Even by the demanding standards of jazz, the trust and awareness that these three expect of each other is especially high.

It occurs on at least two levels: the ability to intuit where each man is heading and negotiate the music in real time, and the vast body of knowledge that all three must command, because when there is no set list, one might end up playing anything.

“It’s really improvisation — but with a state of mind that conceives it as composition on the spot,” Moutin says. “We start playing and at some point somebody starts hinting at the melody, and the two other catch it, and we play it for a while or just a little time. Anything can happen.

“Having played together we can sometimes anticipate what the other guys are going to do, but a lot of it is really a matter of catching the spirit, and memory.”

The complicity among the three traces back to a pair of chance encounters. One occurred in 1996 at the Greenwich Village jazz club Smalls, where Pilc and Hoenig met one night sitting in on the same session.

Both were relatively new in town: Pilc, in his mid-30s , had moved from Paris a year earlier, desiring to advance his jazz career in the music’s main hub; while a young Hoenig was fresh from music studies at the University of North Texas. They didn’t know each other, but instantly resonated with each other’s approach.

“He was playing a standard, and playing in such a way that he was rhythmically dissecting it,” Hoenig says of Pilc, “and that’s what I was trying to do myself, thinking about music and rhythm in the same way.”

The other founding connection in the group dates to the early 1980s in Paris, where Moutin and Pilc met while studying at one of France’s elite science and engineering colleges.

There, Moutin and his brother Louis — a drummer and a trained engineer as well — were playing one day in the college’s music room when Pilc heard them and dropped by. Unlike the Moutins, Pilc was self-taught, and though he was clearly a virtuoso, his jazz knowledge was limited to the music’s early days.

“We do a session, it goes great, and we realize he doesn’t know anything past maybe Erroll Garner,” Moutin says. The brothers recommended newer sounds to check out: Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett. “And he does that and a couple of weeks later he had integrated everything.”

It is tempting to trace a line from Pilc and Moutin’s science background to their music today in the trio with Hoenig — whether in the mathematics of rhythm or their encyclopedic control of repertoire. But Pilc isn’t buying it.

“That feels like almost another life,” he says. “I do remember it but it feels like it was somebody else. When I play music, I really don’t know where it comes from, and I don’t want to find out.”

Instead, all three players say that what makes this group special — and what they hope to share with the audience — is the way it invokes and expresses a collective spirit.

“The audience can feel something is happening between us and it becomes very communicative after a while,” Moutin says. “They can feel we’re on something that’s beyond us. It’s about emotions, really.”

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