Just ignore the fact that this bright, endearing set has been named II; it’s the debut album by Montreal-based composer-pianist Jean-Michel Blais. With so many piano albums being released as of late, this one comes as a breath of fresh air. Multiple tempos and timbres make it a standout in a crowded field, as II celebrates the variety inherent in ivory sounds.
The set is also marked by intimacy and warmth. The first, fifth and final tracks feature the sound of a child (perhaps Blais’ own) playing in the background while the composer remains deeply embedded in his work. On “Hasselblad 4 (Improvisation)”, one can hear the word “Mommy”, and the chatter continues while the piano – itself miked – creaks and stirs. The fastest and finest track, “II”, breezes by in only two minutes, which is the more obvious reason for the album’s title. Flurry after flurry descends until a virtual blizzard of notes accumulates, burying the floor pedal; by the end, even the pianist has begun to wind down. These are, after all, improvisations; and one must catch the creative fire as it flares, stoking it as long as it lasts. And look at that cover ~ one hand poised as the other plays, no time to waste, not a second ignored.
On the lead single, “Nostros”, Blais is joined by hybrid modern composition / electronic artist Bufflo, who ironically once recorded a track called “Nils Frahm” (check link for details). The sudden swell of the sonic field is sublime. By rising to and descending from this point, Blais structures the album like a bell curve, displaying an instinctive knack for sequencing. Fast and furious these notes arrive, until they don’t; after visiting “Budapest”, down the ivory mountain the composer traipses, leaving black and white crumbs in his wake. The strong notes at the center of “Casa” make a declarative statement, followed swiftly by the subdued interrogative, along with a light drizzle, the clearing of dishes and the honking of a horn. It’s time to rejoin the family, Dad! But by this time, we can let the composer go with love; he’s invited us into his home, enthralled us for a bit, and left us with sweet memories that we can replay time and again. (Richard Allen)