Discovered: Pianist Jean-Michel Blais

It started with a conversation at work in September. My colleague Deena asked if I’d heard of pianist Jean-Michel Blais.

She’d heard him on the CBC radio show q. She described his experimental style, a mix of classical and improvisation; Deena was impressed. I listened to a sample of his music on YouTube. His style was experimental, yes, but also warm and melodic.

Within minutes, we’d bought tickets for Deena, me and our friend Sam for a November concert at The Great Hall in Toronto.

Other than listening to that one piece on YouTube, I was going in naïve, as was Sam. I have to admit that’s how I enjoy a lot of art. Like an explorer making a new discovery.

Blais is all about exploring and discovery himself. He’s travelled the world. Born in rural Quebec, he’s lived in Guatemala and Germany, and speaks several languages.

Now based in Montreal, most of his exploration is of a musical nature. He experiments with the piano itself, plucking the strings so it sounds like a harp, or a balalaika – or using it as a purely percussive instrument. It can sound like a whole orchestra.

He maps the expanse of human emotions, taking his audience on inner journeys through melodies and silence.

“It’s so evocative,” I whispered to Sam. “This could totally be a film score.”

“Yeah!” she whispered back. “I was thinking the same thing. He should be writing scores for movies.”

We had discovered Jean-Michel Blais.

Jean-Michel Blais photo by Isis Essery, courtesy Arts and Crafts

He’s used to that. He’s been discovered throughout his life. Self-taught in piano and later studying with a teacher in his hometown of Nicolet, he was such a natural that at 17, he was given a place at the Conservatoire de Musique du Québec à Trois-Rivières. A true innovator, he rebelled against rigid instruction, and left to explore.

He was discovered ten years ago at 21 by Quebec playwright and film director Robert Lepage, who loved Blais’ compositions. The pianist continued experimenting, but held down day jobs working in special education and as a CEGEP professor in Quebec, helping students prepare for university.

Then he posted some of his music online on at Bandcamp. As an interview there relates, Blais was discovered again this year, by Cameron Reed, another minimalist pianist with the Arts and Crafts label. Reed introduced Arts and Crafts to Blais and they signed him.

Their discovery of him was a turning point. As he told us at his concert, he can now devote himself full-time to composing. And he’s loving it. Just four weeks in.

With a major label behind him, the world is going to discover Jean-Michel Blais.

Blais’ album Il is available now. Go to his website for more information.

Special thanks to Samantha (Sam) Emann for the featured image in this post.