Virtuoso Vibes: Gwilym Simcock at Kerrytown Concert House
Ever since Bartolomeo Cristofori invented the piano in 1700, virtuosos have found ways to leave distinctive marks on the instrument's 88 keys. Over the past 15 years, Gwilym Simcock has earned the virtuoso description through a series of recordings, concerts, and compositions that explore the full harmonic and percussive spectrum of the piano.
Simcock blends classical elements that can be traced to the instrument's inception alongside modern improvisational acumen that recalls the harmonically dense but intensely lyrical jazz of Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau. It's an intensely personal but inviting sound: Even as your brain does flips trying to figure out what Simcock's playing as his hands blaze over the keys, your toes still tap in time to his undeniable grooves.
The pianist is an important part of working bands led by guitarists Pat Metheny and Wolfgang Muthspiel, but it's Simcock's solo performances that have brought him the greatest acclaim, including being nominated for the UK's most prestigious music award, the Mercury Prize, in 2011 for the Good Days at Schloss Elmau album.
Simcock will play solo at Kerrytown Concert House on Saturday, June 24, and we talked to the British pianist about his work with major guitarists, the way he connects to audiences, how he discovered jazz, and what he teaches classical pianist students about improvisation.
Q: You’ve worked with guitarists Pat Metheny, Wolfgang Muthspiel, and Mike Walker, all of whom are virtuoso fusion players. What is it about your piano playing that works so well with these types of guitarists?
A: Well, I’d never really thought of them as "fusion" to be honest! I think they’re all extremely lyrical musicians who appreciate nuance and dynamics in music as well as the melodic and harmonic subtleties that I really love too. So it’s really easy to work with musicians like that, who put form and narrative so strongly into their playing and writing. I’ve certainly been blessed to have the opportunity to work with so many great practitioners of that particular instrument! It's supposed to be hard for "harmony" instruments to work together, but I've never really found it to be like that. You just have to be open-minded about the way you play, and try to be expansive in creating different textural worlds for the instruments to shine and complement each other. Every guitarist is different, of course, so you can't just have a regular plan to suit all. Each time you work with someone new you have to get to know their playing and work out how you can best fit in with their style of music making.
Q: I loved the video where you break down “These Are the Good Days.” It helped me focus on and understand the complex harmonic aspects of the song rather than just get hooked on the groove, which is more of an immediate feeling. Do you explain your musical process for each song when you give solo concerts? Or do you prefer to let the music do the talking during a performance?
A: Thank you! That’s an interesting question. I feel like it is important to give the audience a sense of the story/ideas involved with each piece, especially so as it’s music without a vocal element. Sometimes I want to set the scene by talking to the audience first, but other times I’ll just get on and play -- so there’s a bit of a mixture really. When playing solo, you are so very aware of the connection you have with the audience, so I’m always keen to develop that as much as possible, and make the people there feel like they’ve shared the journey of each piece -- and the concert as a whole -- with you. This is extremely important to me, as attending a jazz concert should be a very unique and engaging experience. I’m very keen to encourage people that when they come to listen they’ll feel like they’re part of what’s going on and not excluded and confused -- which is what occasionally people assume they’re going to feel like at a jazz gig.
Q: I read that you “discovered” jazz in your teens. Was it a revelatory thing -- like, you heard something and said, “What’s that?” and then went on a jazz bender -- or was it something that just unfolded during that time, where you started checking out jazz a little more closely?
A: It did happen relatively quickly really. I was studying classical piano and French horn at music school, and I was introduced to jazz through attending improvisation classes, and also by a mix cassette made by the teacher, of many different jazz tracks. Quite a few weren’t entirely my thing at that point, but the first four tracks most certainly were, and really did change the direction of my musical life. The first was "Questar" from Jarrett’s My Song. Then two Metheny tracks off Travels, called "Phase Dance" and "Straight on Red," which makes playing in his band now all the more emotional and experience! And finally, an Egberto Gismonti track called "Lôro." These tracks all had so much warmth, lyricism, emotion, elegance, and excitement that I was immediately hooked, and that gave me a template for what I’ve always felt jazz is all about. I learned so much from those pieces and still continue to!
Q: How does your playing change when you’re performing solo versus with a rhythm section? Do you play more percussively? Do you mess with structures and harmony more because you don’t have to worry about other musicians?
A: Well, it’s great to have the whole piano to play with. Having come from a classical background, I was always used to that, but it’s something that sometimes you lose when you play in a band, for obvious reasons. I’m really keen to create a wide variety of textures and emotions throughout the concert, and really, the piano is the perfect instrument to do that on. And also, yes -- there’s a lot more freedom, of course, to go off on melodic/harmonic or rhythmic tangents, which is something I think a lot of audience members enjoy a lot as it’s true exploration and you never really know how something will end up!
Q: I know you’re a professor of jazz piano at the Royal Academy of Music, but do you also work with classical pianists who are trying to learn how to improvise? If so, what are some of the hurdles you see in your students who have extensive classical backgrounds but are just starting to play jazz?
A: I don’t regularly teach classical musicians, but I do a lot of one-off masterclasses that can involve them. One of the important things is to set some harmonic boundaries, as what scares most classical musicians, I think, is the concept of playing a "wrong" note. This can easily be solved in the early stages by setting out a harmonic framework for the improvisation. As soon as a musician knows they have control over what their harmonic options are -- and that they won’t play a "clanger" -- then it allows them to focus on the other elements of what they’re doing. Also, it’s so crucial -- if there’s more than one person improvising -- to make sure everyone is tuned in to really listening. When you improvise with someone else, you’re a team, and the other person/people can really help you out. If you’re nervous, one of the first things you forget to do is listen -- so I always try to remind people about that.
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.
Gwilym Simcock plays Kerrytown Concert House, 415 N. 4th Ave., Ann Arbor, on Saturday, June4 at 8 pm. Tickets are $5-$30. Visit kerrytownconcerthouse.com for more info.