Gwilym Simcock and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra – Release
(Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 27 April 2023 – Live review by Mark McKergow)
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Pianist and composer Gwilym Simcock arrives in Scotland with an evening of intricate new material which really tests the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (SNJO). Unsurprisingly, they pass with flying colours.
Called a ‘creative genius’ by the late Chick Corea, Gwilym Simcock is widely regarded as one of the standout talents of his generation. Now in his early 40s, Welsh-born Simcock has a host of successful collaborations behind him with the likes of the City of London Sinfonia and Stuttgarter Kammerorchester. Shifting between the jazz and classical worlds, he is both a fine composer/arranger and a brilliant performer. It’s no surprise that SNJO director Tommy Smith heard him playing a solo piano show and leapt to sign him to work with the orchestra, itself one of the world’s finest large jazz groups.
This evening saw the first performance (world premiere, even) of Release, Simcock’s eight-part suite. At around two hours total performance time, this is a huge work; bold in ambition, multi-layered in sound, giving great opportunities for soloists amidst dense and through-written passages which give the musicians little time for rest and recuperation. The SNJO’s usual line-up was enhanced by the presence of percussionist Steve Forman, LA session musician turned lecturer and composer, who contributed throughout on a vast range of hittables, shakeables and waveables. His partnership with drummer Alyn Cosker was a source of endless delight.
The show opened with an impromptu singing of Happy Birthday to Tommy Smith started by Simcock, who then gave an early indication of his precision by continuing his improvisation on the tune and morphing it into the opening piece, The Loosener. Smith stepped forward with wooden flute in hand and laid down a solo with strong folk-traditional feeling. The orchestra got into gear with Martin Kershaw leading on soprano saxophone before Smith took a tenor sax solo. Guitarist Graeme Stephen was very good here and throughout – his solo interludes were a highlight. Helena Kay shifted from flute to alto sax and back many times and shone on both.
The overall style of the music is definitely transatlantic; at times a bit fusiony, complex shifting metres ticking along, then a bit funky, then brassy and bold. My colleague Patrick Hadfield said it reminded him of Gil Evans. I was imagining that Cagney & Lacey had bumped into Pat Metheny and made a go of it; Simcock is not afraid of writing horn parts in the higher registers! It’s rich and intoxicating stuff. The musicians grappled with vast score parts and kept going. When Eric Morecambe told Andre Previn that his introduction to Greig’s Piano Concerto was ‘about a yard short’, he was perhaps foreshadowing the scale of this music.
It is impossible to write in detail about Release here; there is so much to hear and so much enjoyment on offer. Showing admirable restraint, Simcock didn’t give himself a solo until nearly the end of the first half in Here Be Joy. When he did, the extended solo piano excursion was mesmerising; I noticed every member of the orchestra craning their necks to focus on him. One Glorious Moment is a two-trombone ballad brought forth in great style by Gordon Campbell and Michael Owers. In Snap, the final piece, Anoushka Nanguy (trombone) and Sean Gibbs (trumpet) both produced powerful solos. And as a final hastily devised and well-deserved encore, Simcock had the horns drone a note and then gracefully improvised over it, under it, around it, against it and finally faded out with a nod to Stevie Wonder.
The short tour continues with performances in Glasgow (Friday 28 April), Dundee (Saturday 29 April) and Aberdeen (Sunday 30 April). I doubt there’ll be an evening of jazz innovation to match it this year.
Remaining dates 28 Apr Glasgow. 29 April Dundee. 30 April Aberdeen.
The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra:
Saxes: Martin Kershaw, Helena Kay, Tommy Smith, Konrad Wiszniewski, Bill Fleming
Trumpets: James Davison, Sean Gibbs, Tom MacNiven, Lorne Cowieson
Trombones: Gordon Campbell, Michael Owers, Anoushka Nanguy, Owen Pickering
Rhythm: Gwilym Simcock, Graeme Stephen, Calum Gourlay, Alyn Cosker, Steve Forman