Interview: Gwilym Simcock

In advance of the London launch of “Good Days at Schloss Elmau” (ACT Music) at the Forge Venue, Camden on February 1st),” Thomas Gray interviewed Gwilym Simcock. (Photo credit: Bremen 2008 by William Ellis )

“It’s the ultimate hard thing for a piano player to do. You’re completely naked and there’s no hiding place,” says Gwilym Simcock of playing solo. “It’s really full-on from start to finish and you have to throw yourself into it whole-heartedly to get through it. Sometimes at the end of it you feel like you’ve been in a fight!”

This being the case, it is a fight he is unquestionably up for. While even some of the true greats of jazz piano have shied away from solo gigs or recordings, Simcock has already released two sets of solo material, the most recent being ‘Good Days At Schloss Elmau’, which he launches with a gig at the Forge in Camden next month.

Going it alone has been an important way of reconciling Simcock’s earlier classical training with jazz, which he discovered later on in his formative years as a musician. “When I first came to London to study jazz at college, the thing I loved about it was the interaction and playing with other musicians, so I threw myself into playing with bands. After about four or five years, you realise that if you’re just playing with bands all the time, you end up playing in a certain way and your left hand just becomes very familiar with comping. I was brought up to use the whole piano playing interesting classical music and felt I had let myself go a bit and needed to get back into shape.”

‘Good Days’ is Simcock’s debut for ACT, which boasts some formidable pianists in its catalogue, including the late Esbjörn Svensson and Vijay Iyer. For Simcock, however, there is little doubt about who has set the highest standards in solo jazz piano. “It’s hard to argue that Keith Jarrett isn’t the best player of the piano there’s ever been in jazz. To do what he does night after night and weave a whole concert out of nothing is pretty phenomenal.”

“The problem is, people always make the comparison between my music and Jarrett’s—which is incredibly flattering because I wouldn’t feel like I am even in the same stratosphere as he is. At the end of the day it’s still a piano; it’s not like a saxophone where you can have your own sound as a starting point. If you’re both playing a nice Steinway D then you’re starting with the same building blocks.”

So how does Simcock manage to step outside of the colossal shadow of Jarrett? A deep understanding of several different genres helps. On the buoyant opening track ‘These are the Good Days’, Simcock coaxes complex polyrhythms from his instrument akin to a Weather Report track and even achieves appropriately synth-like timbres through his voicings. It is an astonishing feat for a solo pianist. After this impressive start, he summons an array of textures and colours, from poignant romanticism (‘Can We Still Be Friends’) through to a meditative, Gershwin-esque take on the blues superimposed with meandering lines reminiscent of Messiaen (‘Gripper’). Intriguingly, there are also forays into twelve-tone composition and free improvisation (‘Wake-up Call’).

But far from sounding like an iPod set to shuffle, the album holds together remarkably well. The most obvious thread linking it together is Simcock’s distinctive and sophisticated harmonic language, which is becoming an unmistakable hallmark of his playing. And while some of the compositions are ferociously technical, a strong melodic line is never too far away. “I want to make the piano sing and prick people’s emotions and make music which moves you and takes you on a journey,” says Simcock.

This is perhaps most apparent seeing him live. At a recent warm-up gig at the Bull’s Head in Barnes, he seemed to pour himself into his instrument, utterly absorbed in the moment as he embarked on some fascinating departures from the material on the album. It is a setting he clearly relishes. “Many different things make up your mind-set, and that translates into the musical decisions you make. For me, that element should be really exciting as opposed to when you go to see someone like Britney Spears and you know that every last second of it is choreographed and it’s exactly the same every single concert…and auto-tuned!”

On February 1st at the Forge, we can expect to see a pianist in great shape who is unquestionably up to the intense rigours of solo performance, but most importantly, who never forgets to tell a story with his music and engage the audience in it.

Bookings for Feb 1st at www.forgevenue.org / ACT Music website

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