“I really believe a pianist is not complete until he’s capable of playing by himself,” Michel later reflected. Having always performed with his eyes wide open, playing alone allowed him to connect evermore directly with the audience. As a solo artist, Michel reached his zenith.
In 1985, he became the first non-American to sign with Blue Note records. He played two consecutive nights opening for Miles Davis. On the second evening, Miles insisted on playing first, essentially opening for Michel – arguably an act of utmost respect. In 1997, Michel played for the pope in front of an audience of 400,000. He was a prolific, seemingly tireless performer. In consecutive years, he would play well over a hundred concerts per annum, despite regularly being blighted by broken bones. On one occasion, he broke his finger, collarbone and wrist. He was in such pain that he had to be fed, and yet, at the same time, he still played his concerts. In response to doctors advising him not to play for a while, he said simply, “If you stop me from playing I will die”.
In 1995, he recorded Michel plays Petrucciani. Many regard this as a turning point in his music, celebrating it as his most lyrical and mature output to date. Records like this earned Michel the reputation of being (as the New York Times put it), “one of the great romantics of the jazz piano”.