In the centre of the sky-lit atrium at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Montreal minimalist Jean-Michel Blais presents his art casually, intimately and gracefully to a mixed audience. On an early Friday evening, eyebrow-cocking hipsters exchange glances, older couples share wine and nibble on tuna-and-endive creations and, over there, that's Tom Cochrane, the Juno-winning rocker.
All those eyes and more are on the unknown Blais, a sketcher of sorts. The bearded young man with a twinkle in his eye works at a baby grand, producing from it classically evocative moods, pleasing pop melodies and emotive progressions. The casual recital serves as a low-key unveiling of a new artist. The French have a word for this kind of moment: It is voilà.
"I'm comfortable in those kinds of spaces," the pianist Blais says later, in the members' lounge at the gallery. "When you improvise, you're searching for yourself, and the audience notices it. It's a unique interaction."
Blais, 31, is the most recent signing by Toronto-based Arts & Crafts indie-music label. Il, his debut album of solo piano explorations, shares the melodic pop awareness of label-mate Chilly Gonzales, while revealing the influences of Ravel, Sate and Philip Glass.
"Creation is re-creation," explains Blais, when asked about the inspirations behind his pieces. "Parts are reshaped. Not everything comes from me. I don't own it all."
As for the influence of Glass, Blais recalls his first exposure to the repetitive-music maestro: "The first time I listened to him, I thought 'Oh, I'm allowed to play this chord for five minutes?' It was a revelation. I could just relax."
Indeed there is nothing hurried to Blais, a player whose musical path has been marked by starts, stops and come-and-go ambition. Raised in rural Quebec, he was self-taught until an aborted stint in his teens at Trois-Rivières Music Conservatory, where he found his improvisational impulses thwarted. Later, he was taken under the wing of the Quebec director-playwright Robert Lepage, whose mentorship he left for adventures in Europe while in his mid-20s.
Upon his return to Montreal, Blais began teaching full-time – he is a prep-school instructor, specializing in the training of special-ed teachers – with music as a passion on the side. He posted his compositions online at Bandcamp, which is where they were discovered by Cameron Reed, a marketing manager at Arts & Crafts.
"Jean-Michel has a naiveté and wide-eyed newness that I find refreshing," Reed told The Globe this week. "And there's a magnetism to his music. It's immediate and timeless, and, as we roll it out, we're finding that audiences are quickly becoming fans."
The introduction of Blais to audiences is a gradual process that includes the early Friday evening residency at the AGO. Reed refers to the label's delicate handling of Blais as "touch and go," and he's careful to let his new-found artist advance at his own speed. "We don't want to bombard him with too much," he says.
Blais himself admits that he was suspicious when first approached by the label (home to indie-music kingpins Feist and Broken Social Scene). "I had my teaching job and I had my security," he says. "I didn't know whether to trust them at first, but it's exciting."
At the end of Blais's performance at the AGO, the Frank Gehry-designed room is darker and quieter than when he began 40 minutes earlier – the dusk let in by the giant glass ceiling above. The mint-condition melodist has made a case for stylish intimacy and as he unveils a gorgeous non-album number influenced by some of the gallery's works, a middle-aged woman takes it in, mesmerized – hand to chest, eyes closed and mouth slightly agape.
Hers is one of different reactions to what must be seen as work in progress. And as a live portrait himself, Blais's hesitant advances are sublime in the early going.
Jean-Michel Blais plays AGO Friday Nights, April 22, free with gallery admission.