Gwilym Simcock: “I want to have an emotional experience when I listen to music. I want it to move me”

Eight years on from his Mercury Prize-shortlisted ACT debut, pianist Gwilym Simcock returns with a second solo album for the label recorded at his home in Berlin. He talks to Peter Quinn about evoking emotions, restoring a 120-year-old piano, and why practicing in the afternoon won’t win you any friends in Germany

Oscar Peterson called it, “a single instrument capable of expressing every possible musical idea”, while Dave Brubeck likened it to “a whole orchestra”. They’re talking, of course, about the piano, an instrument which, according to the Polish-American virtuoso Leopold Godowsky, “as a medium for expression is a whole world by itself.”

This image of the piano being a complete, self-contained musical universe, an orchestra in itself, comes strongly to mind when listening to Gwilym Simcock’s new solo album for the ACT label, Near and Now. The recording pays tribute to five of Simcock’s piano heroes who’ve had a particular impact on the development of his own musical language and style.

“I want to have an emotional experience when I listen to music,” he tells me on the phone from Berlin. “I want it to move me and, naturally, when you’re making your own music that’s what you’re trying to achieve – to evoke emotions in the people who are listening. And I find myself going back to things that I know will give me that emotional experience.

“Improvisation is at the centre of jazz, but I think sometimes that’s maybe at the expense of the quality of the compositional element. Something I really wanted to do with this album was to focus in on that, as well as improvisation, and do a lot of composing. I wanted that concept to be at the centre of quite a few of the pieces.”

Much of the music on Near and Now was penned while Simcock was touring the world with the Pat Metheny Quartet, with the pianist hiring practice rooms or getting to venues early to be able to write a little more music – even finding himself, on one occasion, playing on a piano hidden away in the backstage store cupboard of a concert hall – and then assiduously recording hundreds of snippets on his phone.

“Formal considerations – maybe this is going a little bit too fast, this needs to develop a bit more slowly, this needs a contrasting section here – were important and a lot of those decisions came through quite a rigorous editing process when I was writing it.”

Dedicated to the five-time Grammy Award-winning pianist and composer Billy Childs, the three-movement album opener ‘Beautiful Is Our Moment’ features some of Simcock’s most joyous writing, with an elegiac coda providing the final surprise. “I thought the coda would be a nice way to tie it up, given that the introduction has that element to it – a sort of mirror image at the beginning and the end.”

‘Inveraray Air’, dedicated to the founder member of Yellowjackets, pianist Russell Ferrante, is marked by a dramatic textural stripping away at the close.

“If you’re doing a whole album of piano music then you’re very aware that you want there to be as many different contrasts, textures, stories and emotions in there as possible, to keep it interesting for the listener,” Simcock notes. “That represents what I like myself. I love more classical, dense, extended harmony and pianistic texture, but at the same time I like things which have a good feel to them, because something that has a great groove can also be emotionally uplifting. I try to attend to all the different angles – rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic – as much as possible.”

If the Brad Mehldau dedication, ‘Before The Elegant Hour’, possesses a kind of rough-hewn grandeur (“a lot of left-hand activity which is very much his thing. A lot of his stuff has got that kind of brooding quality and that’s the soundworld I wanted”), then ‘You’re My You’, dedicated to Les Chisnell, Professor of Jazz Piano and Improvisation at Chetham’s School of Music and Simcock’s first jazz piano teacher, is a touching chorale. Chisnell’s own approach to music is, Simcock remarks, “very much about beauty”.

The concluding three-movement ‘Many Worlds Away’ is dedicated to the remarkable Brazilian composer, guitarist and pianist, Egberto Gismonti.

“There was a particular piece called ‘Lôro’ on Gismonti’s album Sanfona, which was partly responsible for getting me into jazz in the first place. He’s an incredibly prolific recording artist – there are a lot of solo albums which are very atmospheric, they have these long tracks which take you to a different place. That’s an important element: the kind of narrative, almost filmic, quality of some musicians who take you to a different place when you listen to them. I’ve been thinking about that more and more when I’ve been teaching [at the Royal Academy of Music] – when you’re a student nobody really talks to you about that element of making music, it’s all about the technique. When you’re playing, how are you trying to engage your listener in the music you’re making? I find Gismonti incredibly engaging, whatever he plays – you’re transported into that world.

“I can foresee there being a follow-up at some point, because there’s quite a few other musicians I’d like to find a way of dedicating some music to.”

Hailed as “an original. A creative genius” by Chick Corea, Simcock moves seamlessly between jazz and classical music, with influences from Corea, Jarrett, Metheny and Pastorius on the one hand, to classical composers including Bartók, Dutilleux, Ravel and Turnage on the other. As well as co-leading the award-winning Anglo-American quintet The Impossible Gentlemen, Simcock has toured with Bill Bruford’s Earthworks, Dave Holland, Lee Konitz, Kenny Wheeler and violinist Nigel Kennedy, among others. His debut album Perception was nominated for Best Album in the BBC Jazz Awards 2008, and his brilliant 2011 ACT debut Good Days at Schloss Elmau was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize.

Bridging the jazz-classical divide, recent extended works such as last year’s Birdsong/Cân yr Adar, Simcock’s beautiful collaboration with singer-songwriter Kizzy Crawford and Sinfonia Cymru released on Basho Records, combine through-composed writing with improv, something which he clearly wishes to explore further. “My training is in those two areas, so that’s what naturally feels musically home. What I’d love to do in the next couple of years is to do more orchestral things,” he tells me.

Following his marriage to the cellist Rachel Helleur-Simcock, who for the past 10 years has been a member of the world-renowned Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Simcock found himself dividing his time between Cheshire and Germany. The couple decided to take the plunge and buy a piano for their Berlin apartment, the instrument in question being an incredibly beautiful sounding Steinway Model B grand piano. And it’s this instrument that you hear on Near and Now.

“It’s a classic old apartment with really high ceilings and a wooden floor. In terms of size, it can just about take a Steinway B. Anything bigger than that just wouldn’t work, it would overpower the room,” he explains.

The Steinway was acquired via the Klangmanufaktur partnership in Hamburg. “They’re all ex-Steinway employees,” he says. “They find these old pianos that have got a fantastic body and a wonderful soundboard and restore them back to how they used to be – they put an entirely new action and brand new everything inside. Apart from the frame, everything else is completely new. So essentially you get the best bits of having a brand new piano, but with an extra kind of soul and quality to the sound. This piano is nearly 120 years old now, so you get an extra richness – certainly down the lower end – that you just wouldn’t get with a new piano.”

When Simcock texts me photos of the Steinway, both before and after restoration, it’s clear that the black-and-white photo featured in the CD booklet really doesn’t do it full justice – the colour photos illustrate the incredible grain which the restoration process has revealed. Often referred to by pianists as “the perfect piano”, measuring close to seven feet long and almost five feet wide, the timbral beauty of this particular Model B – from its bell-like treble to its incredibly rich bass – coupled with an astonishing dynamic range from a barely audible ppp to a blazing fff, allows Simcock’s pianism to take spectacular flight.

Being considerate neighbours, before installing the instrument the couple acoustically treated the room, a process that included purchasing soundproof curtains and an artwork (“not the most incredible piece of art in the world,” Simcock confesses) made of a material which absorbs sound. The piano itself sits on a 7cm high podium which acoustically separates it from the floor. “There’s a kind of unwritten rule in Germany that you’re not really supposed to make noise between one and three in the afternoon,” Simcock remarks. “They have a quiet time, so we obviously try to adhere to that.”

If Birdsong/Cân yr Adar broke new ground for Simcock in terms of producing and editing the album, Near and Now is the first album he’s actually recorded himself, which was “definitely a learning experience and something I look forward to developing.”

The recording process was at least partially inspired by Jarrett’s The Melody At Night, With You, which was similarly recorded at home, and just after Jarrett had had his own Hamburg Steinway overhauled. “It was heartening to know that such an extremely well received and beautiful album was done in the same way,” Simcock tells me. “It set a template that it was OK to do that.”

Touring as a member of the Pat Metheny Quartet since May 2016, Simcock reflects on making music with someone who’s had such a formative influence on his own style: “His music has always been a massive part of my life and it’s an amazing privilege to go out there every night and be part of it onstage. There’ll be an album of new music coming out at the end of this year, which was recorded around two-and-a-half years ago. He’s scored it up, it’s quite epic actually, and I’m extremely proud to have been part of his recorded history.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Jazzwise. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!

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