Live at the Museum
Outside in Music
Mathis Picard, only in his mid-twenties, is an emerging French-Malagasy pianist, composer, producer, and bandleader who currently resides in New York City and is ascending in popularity. If you’ve been fortunate to hear him, it was probably through his genre-bending 2020 EP World Unity under the Mathis Sound Orchestra moniker. This writer, though impressed, did not cover it on these pages as EPs are not what he covers. In case, we know that Picard plays in both large ensembles and with his own quartet, The Elements. However, given his wide-ranging talents, this solo piano concert, recorded live at The National Jazz Museum in Harlem almost exactly two years ago, it likely to bring his name into greater focus. Rarely will you hear a classically trained pianist play pieces of Ravel and stride piano of Willie “The Lion” Smith so impeccably and lead a program of music that seamlessly covers those two ends of the spectrum. Picard is a Rooted in the tradition of live acoustic performance while incorporating the latest musical technology, Mathis’ created his own style that merges electronic bass music, jazz, classical & stride piano.
A child prodigy who began playing at the age of three, has already formed his singular style before the age of thirty. It’s a jaw dropping performance in an event that featured live painting and drawing, a dance area, face painting and an enthusiastic audience seeking both physical and musical warmth on a frigid January evening. The program begins with “Creation of the World” from pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Immediately one can hear the melding of several influences in his sound, segueing without interruption to the stride piano of Willie “The Lion: Smith’s “Cuttin Out,” a sound born in Harlem a century ago, with Picard’s own playful, oft wild, contemporary touches. The ending decrescendo and emphatic close is simply sublime, drawing raves from the audience.
Yet, this is no cover exercise. Picard owns five of these compositions, beginning with the interlude “Earthlude,” that uses loops and electronic sequencing, heard later in the program in the interlude “Firelude.” The former presages his “Snake Song,” which he introduces verbally and proceeds to deliver a heavily percussive showcase, encompassing seemingly all eighty-eight keys, with an especially stunning left hand. That leads into the classical piece “Leia’s Theme” from John Williams, a contrasting study in restraint. He honors Thelonious Monk with rolling notes and bursts of inventive chords in his original, “Like Blue.” Later he acknowledges Duke Ellington in a comparable way in “Clouds.”
The vigorous “Firelude” leads to one of his favorite composers, Ravel’s ‘Le Gibet,” a piece that he first learned as a child, but it was rife with harmonics and complexities that took years to master. He has played it so often that he developed a confidence level that has him here improvising ideas within it. Unlike the other pieces, he demonstrates an astute use of space here as well.
Drawing on history, he nods to Bix Beiderbecke with “In A Mist,” then to Ellington, to, of course, closing with another stride piano workout. “Woodland Fantasy” draws its inspiration from the album The Lion & The Tiger, which features the piano/drum duet of Willie “The Lion” Smith and Papa ‘Jo’ Jones. As such, he calls on drummer Savannah Harris, who answers the call admirably.
This is as broad a swath of piano that you’re likely to hear in just 46 minutes. Settle in as it will take your breath away. Mathis Picard is one to watch.
- Jim Hynes