Pianist/composer Gwilym Simcock sees the 2CD set Blues Vignette as a musical snapshot capturing but one stage of his musical development. In fact, the album is more like a lovingly crafted self portrait which reveals both the musical bloodline and which hints at future endeavors.
The first CD features Simcock solo and for 20 minutes in a duo performing a suite for cello and piano. Stripped of rhythmic accompaniment this is a close-up of Simcock which highlights the dual influences of classical music and jazz in his playing. The opening "Little People" finds its feet from the get go and the pretty tune suggests the fluid lyricism of Bill Evans. Evans is not one of Simock's preferred pianists, but had a great influence on Keith Jarrett who is. Who knows exactly what genes go into the pot? Simcock's touch is generally lighter than both these great pianists, particularly in his left hand, and this lightness brings a beautiful autumnal feel to his interpretation of the second movement of Grieg's piano concerto.
The duality in Simcock's approach to piano, which brings together his classical and jazz roots, is perhaps best heard on three improvisations which run from the somberly impressive "Statues" to the more dramatic "Letter to the Editor" and concludes with the contemplative and tender "Be Still Now," a lovely end to this arresting improvisational triptych.
On these solo piano pieces it is difficult to discern where composition ends and improvisation begins, and "Caldera" with its neo-classical feel follows on very naturally from the three improvisations, with Simcock employing impressive two-handed technique. The longest solo piece at just over nine minutes, "Jaco and Joe" is a fittingly melodic homage to bassist Jaco Pastorius and keyboard player Joe Zawinul. Simcock's left hand keeps a light motif flickering while his right explores and unearths bold and powerful patterns which never abandon the melody.
The first part of the two-part suite for cello and piano, "Kinship," is a delicate, blue-toned composition. At around four and a half minutes, cellist Cara Berridge's string plucking gives her instrument a strangely oud-like quality and serves as a launching pad for Simcock's brief lyrical statement, complete with tapping of the piano's body for added percussive effect. The effect of Berridge's playing while unaccompanied is slightly eerie, but the mood attains a haunting melancholy when joined by Simcock. Part two, "Homeward," is more buoyant, and features both musicians in tandem for most of the piece. Berridge slides into a dramatic riff at two and a half minutes which recalls Jerry Goodman and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. This unleashes a beautiful section with Simcock embellishing the riff, before the duo fade into a peaceful, almost pastoral section which has a surprisingly stirring and abrupt ending.
The second CD features the new Gwilym Simcock Trio in mostly mid-tempo flow. The listener could be forgiven for imagining that Cara Berridge contributes cello to the eponymous introduction, when in fact it is the double bass of Yuri Goloubev. After a distinguished classical career in Russia, Goloubev has turned his considerable talents to jazz, and his classical training and clarity, combined with a formidable technique, suits Simcock's bridging of the two genres to a tee.
Clarity is the watchword in these trio performances. Every note is clearly stated and carries weight; the outstanding title track, blues-drenched and swinging, is perhaps the best example of this collective precision and the space which the musicians allow each other. Simcock plays less than in the propulsive Lighthouse Trio led by reed player Tim Garland, placing the needs of the music above any displays of virtuosity. However, his solos on "Tundra" and "1981" in particular are notable for their breadth of imagination and lyricism.
This less-is-more philosophy is heard to great effect on Sonny Burke's swinging "Black Coffee." Drummer James Maddren brings a light, breezy touch to his kit and his subtlety adds depth to the music. Even when center-stage, as on the Gershwins' "Nice Work If You Can Get It," Maddren's ample vocabulary tends to exclude the crash cymbal. Simcock extends himself on the spectacular "Longing To Be" with an elegantly flowing solo, and the composition is rounded off with bowed bass, whispering cymbals and tip-toeing mallets. "Cry Me A River," the Arthur Hamilton song popularized by Julie London, is the only ballad on the trio CD and features beautiful bass work from Goloubev.
The balance Simcock achieves between compositional structure and improvisation is the thread which runs through the trio numbers and is the unifying strand between the two CDs. Each is an inseparable part of Simcock's emerging musical identity. It will be fascinating to see how this trio develops over time, for its potential is clearly great. Undoubtedly one of the year's most satisfying releases.
Tracks: CD1: Little People; Exploration On Mvt II oOf Grieg Piano Concerto; On Broadway; Improvisation I Statues; Improvisation II Letter To The Editor; Improvisation III Be Still Now; Caldera; Jaco And Joe; Suite For Cello And Piano Part 1 Kinship; Suite For Cello And Piano Part 2 Homeward. CD2: Introduction; Tundra; Blues Vignette; Black Coffee; Longing To Be; Nice Work If You Can Get It; Cry Me A River; 1981.
Personnel: Gwilym Simcock: piano; Cara Berridge: cello (CD1#9, 10); Yuri Goloubev: double bass (CD2); James Maddren: drums (CD2).