Jean-Michel Pilc plays the piano as if there were drums present, particularly in times when there isn’t. His left-handed beat is infectious, almost as much as his loquacious right hand. He more than most can be captivating playing piano solo, which makes his duo work with soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome even more riveting a listen. Newsome finds depth in the soprano saxophone like a man who knows every secret and mood of the sea. Come for his light patter, but stay for the bellowing.
Together, Newsome and Pilc float about each other, like two celestial bodies who depend on one another to maintain their orbit. Newsome in particular has many a moment where his instrument rings out like a clarion call, hitting tones like a siren that bellows while Pilc’s piano shimmers. The two selected to play primarily standards on Magic Circle, songs Newsome in the liner notes described as “played to death”, because the familiar territory as a player (and as a listener) allows for every step off the path makes for a more enduring surprise. No one plays a version of “Giant Steps” that sounds like this, with Pilc’s scattered ramp up and this much dissonance. No one’s version of “Misterioso” feels this slow and steady, like a fawn shaking before learning to walk with confidence. The opener, “Autumn Leaves”, is the lightest fare here, and even it’s walked far outside the park in all its spacey nine and a half minutes.
However, the original songs, “Magic Circle” and “Auto-schediasm” fit perfectly in this set, which is really a surprise considering it’s an album of first and only takes and these two songs were originally improvised in the moment, finding a minor anchor to balance out all these major keyed explorations. This may be the resounding quality of Magic Circle— balance. This isn’t to say that Sam newsome and Jean-Michel Pilc haven’t always been balanced players on their own as solo players, the two are indeed masterful solo players. However, great jazz is about collaborations and conversations; Magic Circle is a well-balanced conversation between two gentlemen who are captivating when giving their monologues, but golly don’t they sound great when they’re talking to each other.
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.