Jean-Michel Blais Crafts Lush, Life-Affirming Compositions on 'aubades'

BY Chris BrysonPublished Feb 2, 2022

For Jean-Michel Blais, aubades is a rebirth. From its opening notes, its whisks listeners away. On the new album from the esteemed post-classical pianist, Blais is in perpetual bloom, moved by life's beauty and nature's song.
Sometimes softly, sometimes momentously, this bloom bears a distinct shift in sound. The Montreal-born musician signed to Arts & Crafts for his 2016 debut LP Il for solo piano. 2018's Dans ma main found him exploring new territory, combining electronics with classical and a darker motif. The latter was inspired by a section of a poem by an obscure French-Canadian Quebec poet who couldn't live the life he wanted, and was suffering because of it. That feeling permeated Dans ma main.

With aubades, Blais continues his penchant for pulling concepts into his music, and even though the new album was composed at times when he was going through his own challenges, it was also an inspired and productive period, and it's felt in its major tonalities and remarkable vitality.
The record's title refers to a Middle Ages dawn serenade about lovers separating at daybreak, and the music lives in this bittersweet goodbye, with the ache and hope of new days, the thrills and fears of uncertainty. Blais still hints at his varied influences, and he collaborated with Alex Weston (a former Philip Glass assistant) while composing the collection, but its distinctive quality comes from his finding inspiration in Renaissance and Middle Ages musical textures — those built for wide-ranging, emotive storytelling — as well as designer, poet and activist William Morris' social-democratic artistic ethic.

Morris' design style seems to have influenced the ornate cover art of aubades, and what's pictured, along with the aforementioned inspirations, translate into life-affirming compositions, kept dynamic and gripping through Blais' keen technical and melodic pop sensibilities. More than anything else, he continues to push his capabilities and what modern classical music can be while bringing a fresh take on old stories, styles, and serenades. aubades also marks Blais' first foray into writing for an ensemble – a 12-person one – and he's clearly been doing his homework.
Instruments were recorded close to the microphones, so not only are their timbres expressive and resonant, but intimate sounds, like the whoosh of a foot pedal, creaks and snaps, conversational fragments and laughter, give the quality of being in the room, feeling the energy come to life, lift off and away. Opening track "murmures," Blais' tribute to Philip Glass, unfolds with arpeggiating keys before being joined by gentle, wistful strings and woodwinds. Flutes eventually enter, uniting in the song's sway, and by its end, the instruments' wavering rhythms and melodies have grown so wonderfully hypnotic and entwined they'll be dancing through heads for days.
In "passepied," a gang of playfully bobbing strings and woodwinds gains boisterous momentum before dropping away to a heady piano sprawl that's soon accompanied by weeping violins and horn flares. The troupe transitions into a reprise with the chipper ensemble singing its heart out, and the melancholic melody harmonizing through the song's latter part showcases remarkable strength with this ability while layering it against a jubilant backdrop. "nina" winds through sorrowful tones and odd cadences set in a wondrous, mesmerizing swing, while the staccato blasts and rapid-fire rhythms of "yanni" veer towards maximal minimalism.

Then there's the soothing "if you build it, they will come," moving elegantly in lustrous, sweeping measures with flitting plucks, pensive strings and double bass. Blais is skillful and intentional in giving each instrument time to shine, and the collection benefits from this democratic ethos. "ouessant" has the vivid, brooding and building high drama of a symphony, while "flâneur," "carrousel" and closer "doux" find courage in reflective restraint, drawing hope from woes and a community of sympathetic sounds.
During aubades' gestation, Blais would go for runs or cycle while listening to its demos, and was moved by the natural world around him. Like Blais sitting in soft light at his piano on Il, and the fragments of the ways the poet's life could have gone, held delicately in a broken crystalline heart, yet still shining, on Dans ma main, aubades blossoms like its comforting, colourful, captivating cover, full of lush greens, blues, oranges, yellows, fluttering butterflies and unfolding lives. It's a rebirth to behold.
(Arts & Crafts)

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