Published on February 02, 2022
For Jean-Michel Blais, aubades is a rebirth. From his first notes, he carried the listeners away. On the new album by the esteemed post-classical pianist, Blais is in perpetual bloom, moved by the beauty of life and the song of nature.
Sometimes softly, sometimes momentarily, this bloom carries a distinct shift in sound. The Montreal-born musician signed with Arts & Crafts for his debut album in 2016 He for piano alone. 2018 In my hand found him exploring new territory, combining electronic with classical and a darker motif. The latter was inspired by a section of a poem by an obscure French-Canadian Québécois poet who could not live the life he wanted and suffered from it. This feeling permeated In my hand.
With aubadesBlais continues his penchant for integrating concepts into his music, and while the new album was composed at times when he was going through his own challenges, it was also an inspired and productive time, and this shows in its major tones and its remarkable vitality.
The title of the disc refers to a serenade of the dawn of the Middle Ages about lovers who part at dawn, and the music lives in this bittersweet goodbye, with the pain and the hope of new days, the chills and fears of uncertainty. Blais always alludes to his varied influences, and he collaborated with Alex Weston (a former assistant to Philip Glass) when putting together the collection, but its distinctive quality comes from its inspiration in Renaissance and Middle Ages musical textures. Age – those designed for wide-ranging, emotive storytelling – as well as the social-democratic art ethic of designer, poet and activist William Morris.
Morris’ design style appears to have influenced the ornate cover of aubades, and what is exemplified, as well as the aforementioned inspirations, result in life-affirming compositions, kept dynamic and captivating thanks to Blais’ sharp technical and melodic pop sensibilities. More than anything else, it continues to push its abilities and what modern classical music can be while bringing a fresh take on ancient stories, styles and serenades. aubades also marks Blais’ first foray into writing for an ensemble – a 12-person band – and he’s clearly done his homework.
The instruments were recorded close to the microphones, so not only are their timbres expressive and resonant, but intimate sounds, like the breath of a pedal, squeaks and pops, bits of conversation and laughter, give the quality to be in the room, to feel the energy come to life, fly away and go. The opening track “murmures”, Blais’ tribute to Philip Glass, unfolds with touches of arpeggios before being joined by soft, nostalgic strings and woodwinds. The flutes eventually enter, uniting with the rhythm of the song, and in the end, the rhythms and flickering melodies of the instruments have become so wonderfully hypnotic and intertwined that they will dance through your head for days.
In “passepied,” a playfully dancing band of strings and wind instruments picks up a boisterous momentum before collapsing to a heady piano sprawl that is soon accompanied by wailing violins and horns. The troupe cuts to a reprise with the shredding ensemble singing their hearts out, and the soulful melody harmonizing through the song’s final section exhibits remarkable strength with this ability while layering it against a jubilant backdrop. “nina” meanders through aching tones and eerie cadences in a wondrous, haunting swing, while “yanni”‘s jerky explosions and rapid rhythms veer into maximum minimalism.
Then there’s the soothing “if you build it, they’ll come,” moving elegantly in lustrous, sweeping bars with fluttering pinches, pensive strings, and double bass. Blais is skillful and intentional in giving each instrument time to shine, and the collection benefits from this democratic philosophy. “ouessant” has the lively, brooding and constructive drama of a symphony, while “flâneur”, “carousel” and closer “doux” find courage in thoughtful restraint, drawing hope from misfortunes and a community of sound sympathetic.
While aubades‘ gestation, Blais would go for a run or ride a bike while listening to his demos, and was moved by the natural world around him. Like Blais sitting in a soft light at his piano on Heand the fragments of the paths that the poet’s life might have followed, held delicately in a broken, but still shining crystalline heart, on In my hand, aubades flowers as its comforting, colorful and captivating blanket, full of lush greens, blues, oranges, yellows, fluttering butterflies and unfolding lives. It is a renaissance to behold. (Arts and Crafts)