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Gregg Simpson: Avant-Garde from Vancouver

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The [Al Neil] trio had a very special chemistry and we would go from playing bop classics...to standards...to apocalyptic sound collages, noise music or John Cage-influenced minimalist improvisations.
Gregg Simpson>I came across Gregg Simpson's website while surfing the web for free jazz in Canada. It's amazing how the avant-garde scene in Canada is seldom talked about. Prior to getting acquainted with Gregg Simpson, the thought of free jazz in the 60s and 70s brought to mind New York, Paris, Berlin. Now it also makes me think of Vancouver. <br /><br /> Drummer Gregg Simpson was one of the pioneers of the avant-garde in Canada along with pianists Paul Plimley and Al Neil, saxophonist Bruce Freedman and trombonist Ralph Eppel. Simpson was part of the highly innovative and unconventional Al Neil Trio, the New Orchestra Quintet, and his own groups, the Sunship Ensemble and Lunar Adventures. <br /><br /> Listening to Simpson's recordings, especially the Al Neil Trio and the Sunship Ensemble, is like listening to a piece of history. They have that historical 70s feel, they take you back in time to a point where musicians were shedding the staid and conventional in music and developing new sounds. In these recordings one can almost see the emergence of a new era in music in Canada. <br /><br /> Gregg Simpson tells us more about his music, fellow musicians and his career as an accomplished painter. <P><a name=TOP></a> <strong>Chapter Index</strong><br /><br /><P><a href = /php/article.php?id=22604#1>Background</a> <BR><a href = /php/article.php?id=22604#2>The Vancouver Scene</a> <BR><a href = /php/article.php?id=22604#3>The Al Neil Trio</a> <BR><a href = /php/article.php?id=22604#4><em>Retrospective 1965-1968</em></a> <BR><a href = /php/article.php?id=22604#5>Al Neil Today / Other Groups</a> <BR><a href = /php/article.php?id=22604#6>Other Musicians on the Vancouver Scene</a> <BR><a href = /php/article.php?id=22604#7>Painting</a> <P><br /><br /> <P> <a name=1></a><strong>Background</strong> <P> <strong>All About Jazz</strong>: Tell me about how you became a musician, what kind of an environment did you grow up in? <br /><br /> <strong>Gregg Simpson</strong>: I came from an artistic family. My father, Douglas Simpson, was an architect who pioneered Modernism in Canada during the 1940s and '50s He sang and apparently played violin, although I never heard him do that. He had a great voice, but my mother, Ferne Cairns, was the professional singer in the family. She trained in voice and sang in university before the War. Later, after moving to Vancouver, she sang with a famous European conductor, Nicholas Goldschmidt, who just died in his mid-nineties. She sang with John Avison conducting the CBC Broadcasting Orchestra. She sang the Queen of the Night in <em>The Magic Flute</em>. She was a colatura soprano. <br /><br /> My earliest memories, if you don't count the pre-natal vibrations I would have been subject to, were of her singing Bach, and other classical repertoire. She also sang duets with my father at home and they loved Cole Porter, Gershwin and all the musicals. We have recently been digitizing the few existing radio recordings she made. So, I got my ear from my mother who did have perfect pitch. I could pick out melodies on the piano at a very early age. At age six I started classical piano lessons which I managed to continue until about age 10 or so. I quit because all you want to do at that age is play outside. <br /><br /> At about age thirteen I started getting interested in the drums which my brother played a bit along with flute and bass. We had little jam sessions and I took drum lessons from the famous Jim Blackley's Drum Village, who also turned out such talented students as Terry Clarke, most well remembered for his stint with the fabulous John Handy Quintet in 1965. <br /><br /> My drum lessons finished after three or four years. Then I began to play with musicians like Frank Foster, P.J. Perry, Flip Nunez, Jack Wilson, etc as well as my own group, the New Dimension Jazz Trio. This was in 1964-65. Then came two visits by Philly Joe Jones who borrowed my drums one trip and I got to play with him. His playing was a kind of mind blowing, hard bop on steroids. He was my greatest influence until the free jazz period, although I also liked Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins, Roy Haynes, Elvin [Jones], Tony [Williams] and all the other greats. The influence of these players has always been closest to my heart. The loss of the latter two recently has been hard for me. I also met Elvin in the mid-seventies. Unbelievable player! class= Return to Index...



The Vancouver Scene

AAJ: Tell me about the Vancouver avant-garde scene that you were a part of from the late 60s through 70s, and also how you got involved in it.

GS: I started playing jazz gigs about 1964. I had already been to the Banff Summer School of the Arts and played with Frank Foster, who had just left Count Basie. In Vancouver we had a series of big name jazz acts such as Miles Davis (with George Coleman and Frank Strozier), Cannonball Adderley (with Yusef Lateef and Joe Zawinul), Charles Mingus, Stan Getz, Harold Land with Hampton Hawes, and many others.

I was well grounded in hard bop when Philly Joe Jones arrived and I got to sit in with him as he played piano and there I was trying to play my Philly Joe licks to the man himself. It was a great training ground.

In 1964 we formed the New Dimension Jazz Trio with marimba, bass and drums. It was a strange instrumentation, but we played pretty interesting things and got out into the club scene and met a lot of players. I did a gig with P.J. Perry and Don Thompson, who are the two biggest names now in the Canadian bebop jazz. The changes in jazz to free form were happening right at that time and through Down Beat Magazine and buying LPs we soon learned of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Coltrane's new developments and then Albert Ayler.

It was at this time, 1965, when I joined the Al Neil Trio with my friend, the late Richard Anstey on bass. Al had been the formative bebop pianist in Vancouver and helped start The Cellar, which was a club where everyone from Art Pepper to Charles Mingus played. Ornette did his first out-of-town gig there.

Al was always interested in art and modern literature. He was doing sculptural assemblages and writing cut-up novels in the William Burroughs tradition. In 1958 he recorded what was probably the best jazz and poetry album with Kenneth Patchen on Folkways Records, which is still available.

Al was branching out from bebop and was tired of all the horn players who just wanted him to "play the changes. His major influences had been Bud Powell and Elmo Hope. But his playing was more tumultuous and emotionally charged than most beboppers. It drew on influences like Harry Partch and John Cage, but Al had never actually heard a Cecil Taylor record and his playing was totally different than Cecil's.

I was very influenced by records like Coltrane's Meditations (Impulse!, 1965) and Albert Ayler's Spirits Rejoice (ESP, 1965). My playing was a combination of influences from Elvin Jones, Philly Joe [Jones] and then Sunny Murray. I liked Sunny's orchestral approach to the drums. I was also just getting into the music of Claude Debussy at that time and, although his music was much softer than the jazz I listened to, the influence of the timbres and colors of pieces like the Nocturnes and Images Pour Orchestra was profound.

Gregg Simpson We stopped playing bebop standards by 1967 and the Al Neil Trio went on another year and then became a duo when Richard Anstey left to start his own group. We used a lot of pre-recorded tapes, collage readings, toy instruments and percussion. Gradually we got further into a kind of "art music, with only a few references back to our jazz roots. We played all our concerts at Universities and public art galleries, not clubs. Our music was written about in Coda Magazine. We also ran a multimedia studio with dancers and experimental projections—even before there were light shows. This was the Sound Gallery and it operated out of a little store which I had rented partly as my painting studio. The whole story of this era including our gig opening for Janice Joplin and the Grateful Dead at the Trips Festival can be read at my website.

By 1971 I had stopped playing with Al and it seemed we went our separate ways except in 1972 we formed the Al Neil Jazz Probe which played all that year and did concerts and recordings. It included Richard Anstey, now on soprano saxophone, and alto sax/flautist Annie Seigel from New York who had once been married to Charles Brackeen, the tenor player. Then there was a break while I formed some other bands such as Sunship Ensemble (1974-75), Vancouver Sound Ensemble (1976), and finally the New Orchestra Quintet (1977-80).

In 1973 I was in Paris with a big art exhibition and met Glenn Spearmann. In 1990 we met here in Vancouver and recorded a long piece at the Du Maurier International Jazz Festival. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...


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