Edward Simon: La Música Bilingüe (Bilingual Music)
“ I wanted to push myself into writing shorter and simpler and less specific to help myself develop in that direction and see what I would find. ”
Pianist Edward Simon was born in Punta Cardón, Venezuela. His entire family was composed of musicians, and as a young man, Simon's evident talent led his father to send him to study in the U.S., where he won scholarships in classical piano at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia and in jazz at the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied with Harold Danko. While a student in his teens, Simon performed with Philly guitarist Kevin Eubanks and saxophonist Greg Osby.
Simon moved to New York City in 1989 and began adding a who's who of names to his musical resume: Herbie Mann, Paquito D'Rivera, Bobby Hutcherson, Bobby Watson, Terence Blanchard, Jerry Gonzalez & The Fort Apache Band, Arturo Sandoval, Many Oquendo & Libre, and Don Byron. He also played in Bobby Watson's popular band Horizon and in the Terence Blanchard Group.
Simon's latest album, Unicity (Cam Jazz, 2006) is a trio recording with bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. All About Jazz contributor Jason Crane recently talked with Simon about his life and music.
- Norman, Oklahoma?
- Hearing Jazz For The First Time
- Full Immersion
- Two Traditions
- In The Studio
All About Jazz: Will you describe your hometown of Punta Cardón in Venezuela, and your father's influence on your musical career?
Edward Simon: Punta Cardón is located on a peninsula in Venezuela. It's basically an oil town that was built by the Dutch for the workers at the refinery. The refinery was owned by Shell. That's where I grew upin this little town where all the refinery workers lived. My dad worked there. Although my dad had a career and professional life as a technicianhe was a specialist in metals and corrosionhe always had a great love for music. He played the guitar and sang, and he was responsible for introducing all his children to music.
I come from a family of four siblingsthree brothers and one sister. My oldest brother was the first to play music. He started on percussion and became a percussionist. That's Marlon. My second eldest sibling is my sister Heidi, and she was the first to start on piano. So the piano in the house was initially bought for her to play and take lessons. Eventually, she stopped playing it.
I started out on the electric organ. That was the first instrument I showed interest for. My dad bought me one when I was maybe eight years old. I still remember it was a little organ with one or two octaves. It had a little fan that blew air through it and that's how it made a sound. I think it was battery operated. It was a very simple instrument. Eventually I upgraded to a more sophisticated electronic organ. And all this time we had a piano at the house, so at some point I began to show interest in the piano. I was playing both instruments for a while. When I moved to the States, I was twelve years-old and I was only playing piano at that point.
I moved in 1982. We moved to Norman, Oklahoma, which is where I took my first private piano lesson ever. Up to that point I was self-taught, although my father and my brother taught me a lot of things. My basic knowledge of music was taught to me by them.
AAJ: What kind of music were you playing on the electric organ?
ES: I was playing mostly popular dance music from Latin America. Salsa and Caribbean dance music and merengue. I was also playing a lot of boleros, which are Latin ballads. My was a lover of Latin love songs, and he would always ask me to accompany him when guests came to the house and they wanted to start singing these love songs. At first he would ask me to come and sing for them while he played the guitar, which I really detested. I would hide whenever somebody came to the house because I knew what was coming. But when I started getting better at the organ, he would ask me to play along with him. I learned a lot of boleros that way.
When I got to Norman, Oklahoma, I started studying classical music for the first time.
AAJ: I'm sure your move to Norman, Oklahoma was part of a great Venezuelan migration, but fill in the gaps for us. How did you get there?
ES: The main purpose of that move was for my sister to obtain her college education. She had just graduated from high school, and what she wanted to study was not offered by universities in Venezuela at the time. She decided she wanted to come to the U.S. to study speech therapy. My mother didn't want to let her come on her own, so my mother came. That meant that my younger brother and I had to come as well. We moved to Norman because it was a place where you could get an economical education in the U.S., and they offered the program my sister wanted. Also, we actually happened to have some friends living there from our hometown.
Another reason why we ended up there, I think, is because my dad hoped to get a job transfer so we could all live together at some point in the States. I guess there are some refineries or some connection to Shell there. That never materialized. In 1984, the bolivar, the Venezuelan currency, lost half of its value overnight. So that meant that it was increasingly difficult for my dad to maintain all of us in the U.S. and his move to the U.S. was not going to take place. So we all moved back except for my sister, who stayed to finish her education.
I lived for one year in my hometown, Cardón, and my dad noticed how much progress I had made musically because of the training I'd had for the first time ever. I was studying piano privately [in Norman], but I was also playing trombone in the high school band, and I also messed around with the saxophone for some time. I became a pretty good trombonistI got to be first chair in the band. The reason I ended up playing the horn was that they didn't have piano. You couldn't really play it in the band or the orchestra. So I had to find a piano teacher to study with privately outside of school.
AAJ: When you were seventeen you moved back to the U.S. and went to Philly.
ES: That's right. My dad noticed that I needed to have good training. He knew that if I stayed in my hometown, I was not going to grow musically, because there was no one really to study from there. So he decided to send me back to the U.S. This time I was to come on my own. He researched a school of performing arts that was private. I had to go to a private school to get the necessary immigration documents. I ended up going to the Philadelphia Performing Arts School, where I did my last two years of high school in the arts. Then I ended up going right to the University of the Arts, and after two years I transferred to the Manhattan School of Music. I only went there for about a semester, because I was already starting to tour quite a bit, so I couldn't keep up with both things.
AAJ: Before we continue, it strikes me that your father was willing to take some financial and experiential risks to benefit his children's' education. He seems like a special guy.
ES: To say the least. My dad was incredibly supportive of whatever it was that we wanted to do. He never tried to direct us in any direction that we were not willing to go into. He supported our music all the way from the beginning, and now three of his children are professional musicians. And my sister took up singing later in her life and continues to sing, though not professionally.
Hearing Jazz For The First Time
AAJ: At some point you got bitten by the jazz bug, which I understand came via Chick Corea and Stan Getz?
ES: Yes. The first jazz that I heard was from bands like Sonora Poncena from Puerto Rico, with Papo Lucca. He had some jazz influence in his writing. You could hear that in his music and the rhythms of his band. Then I heard Irakere from Cuba, and that made a big impression on me as well. That was really the first group that I ever heard make a direct fusion between jazz and Afro-Cuban music and also some classical music. Those guys were classically trained. That was a really special band.
AAJ: They were exploding onto the scene as you were getting old enough to appreciate the music.
ES: Exactly. The records they were putting out at that timein the late 1970swere just incredible, fantastic. We were collecting all of their stuff that we could get our hands on, my brother and I. Before I discovered jazz, I was mostly a salsero, someone who is heavily into salsa. I was a fan of a lot of different bands, but Oscar D'Leon was a big idol for me. He was a Venezuelan vocalist and bassist and a world-renowned salsero.
Somehow, among the circle of musicians and friends of ours, someone obtained a copy of Nancy Reagan's birthday celebration at the White House. That videotape contained performances by Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz. At that time, Chick was playing in Stan Getz's group. And John Faddis was playing with Dizzy. I remember watching this young guy who Dizzy was introducing to the world, and he [Faddis] was playing the highest notes on the trumpet that I had ever heard in my life. Then I heard Stan with Chick playing this incredible language on the piano that I had never heard before. That was really the first time I heard jazz in its truest and purest form. I was so taken by it that immediately I thought that was something I wanted to learn how to play and learn more about.
Unfortunately, I didn't have access to a lot of jazz recordings in Venezuela at the time. It's changed a bit since then, but at that time it was really difficult to get your hands on music like that. There wasn't a market for it, I suppose. Not a lot of people listened to that music, so it was really difficult to get records. I wasn't until I moved to Philadelphia that I started collecting jazz recordings, and that was nudged by advice that I was given by different people. Musicians I was meeting. People like [bassist] Charles Fambrough, with whom I started playing my first jazz gigs. And then people at the University of the Arts who were jazz majors and with whom I started playing were telling me about bands like Weather Report and the Miles Davis Quintet, of which I became a great fan.
I had my first jazz piano teacher at that time as well. His name was Mark Valenti, and he introduced me to a lot of great jazz pianists like [Thelonious] Monk and Bud Powell. People who came before the more modern guys who I was more familiar with. I was already listening to Chick, of course, and Herbie [Hancock]. Later, I discovered Keith Jarrett, who's also been a very strong influence in my playing. The earlier guys, like Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and Phineas Newborn and Red Garland and Tommy Flanaganthe list goes on. Those guys I wouldn't ever have found out about in Venezuela. Even in the States, I only heard about them because I met certain people who were able to lead me in the right direction.
AAJ: What was it about jazz that attracted you?
ES: Mostly, I think it was the freedom that improvisation provided and the richness of the harmonic language. Generally speaking, the music I was playing until that time, and I shouldn't really make comparisons, but harmonically speaking, most dance music is quite simple. It's more sophisticated rhythmically, perhaps. So when I heard jazz, all this interesting harmony and sophisticated melodic invention really attracted me. It struck my ear, and my imagination went wild.
AAJ: Certainly with guys like Chick and Stan Getz, there was already a marriage of Latin song forms with jazz. Were you attuned to those possibilities, having grown up as a salsero and now making the transition to jazz?
ES: For sure. Listening to Irakere was a big eye-opener in that sense as well. When I got to New York, I remember the first time I heard the Fort Apache Band. That made a big impression on methe first time I heard a band where everybody in the band was equally versed in two languages. They were musically bilingual. They really knew how to make a true fusion of those languages without sacrifice. That band was instrumental for me.
However, I at one point decided that if I wanted to use jazz as a medium of expression, I needed to immerse myself in the tradition of the music. So when I moved to New York, I don't know if it was a conscious choice that I made, but I mostly took on jazz gigs. That's what I was interested in learning. I already knew how to play Latin music pretty well. I knew that if I wanted to combine the two styles, I was going to have to learn to play jazz equally well. So I decided that I was going to focus on that style for a long time.
I spent four or five years in [saxophonist] Bobby Watson's band [Horizon], then I was in [trumpeter] Terence Blanchard's band, then I got to play with [vibraphonist] Bobby Hutcherson. I was also involved with [saxophonist] Greg Osby, who was actually one of the people who really encouraged me to move to New York. He was the first one to record me, the first one I made a record with. He also was the first to take me on the road to Europe. Unfortunately, I didn't stay in his band that long, but in the short time I was with him, I really learned a lot. He was really forward-thinking and had interesting ideas.
AAJ: How did you meet Greg?
ES: I met Greg because when I was still in Philadelphia, I was playing with Charles Fambrough. Charles had a steady gig in a hotel restaurant in Newtown, Pennsylvania, a little town on the outskirts of Philadelphia. I would play with him in a trio, and he started bringing in professional guests from New York to play with us. One time they brought Bobby Watson. That's how I met Bobby. Bobby was also one of the ones telling me, "You should move to New York," after he heard me play. And that's the same way I met Greg. I think it was through Greg that I met [guitarist] Kevin Eubanks. Kevin was the first bandleader to officially ask me to join his band, and I worked steadily with him right at the beginning of my move to New York. A lot of things converged right as I was moving to New York. Greg was asking me to record and go to Europe with him, Kevin was asking me to join his band, and shortly after I moved, maybe a year later, Bobby asked me to join his band.
That was how I got started. I consider myself very, very lucky to have had those opportunities right from the beginning. I have a lot of friends who spent years in New York before they managed to land a good gig, to break out from the local scene.
AAJ: What was the difference for you?
ES: I guess the difference was the fact that I got to meet a lot of people while I was still living in Philly who were just beginning to break out as bandleaders. Like Bobby and Greg and Kevin. With Greg it was a bit more difficult because he didn't have as much steady work, which is the reason I couldn't stay with him as long as I would have likes. But Kevin was recording for GRP Records, and his band was really taking off. He'd already had a band for a while. And then Bobby was recording for Columbia and eventually Blue Note. So the fact that I met a couple bandleaders before I moved there who were encouraging me to move there made a big difference. Once I got there, I already knew those guys. At first Bobby was just asking me to come in and listen to the band play live. John Hicks was playing in the band at the time. Eventually, he was asking me to sub for John whenever John couldn't make a gig. And then he asked me to join a new edition of the band.
AAJ: You mentioned all those people who took ten years to make it. I've interviewed a lot of those folks, and one thing they were doing during those ten years was playing standards in a piano bar, or sitting in with different guys, or doing things that immersed them in the tradition. You mentioned earlier that you felt a need to immerse yourself in the tradition, but you went from zero to sixty by the time you were eighteen or nineteen or twenty. What was it like when you first started getting on the bandstand with these guys who were starting to break out? Did you think, "Wow, I've got a lot of stuff to figure out in a hurry?"
ES: That's an interesting point. I never really took a close look at that. That's a very good observation. Looking back today, I wish I would have had the opportunity to have a steady gig in New York where I had a chance to play some standards with some guys in a more informal setting. Meaning not playing with already well-known leaders or in concert or club settings like I was doing with Bobby or Kevin Eubanks. Those were high-pressure situations where you already had to have your stuff together. I never really played a lot of standards before I joined those bands. I had to learn the ones that we were playing, but up to now, I don't have a huge repertoire of standards under my fingers. It's partly because of that. Except in Philadelphia, where I did play a steady solo piano gig at a French restaurant. That was mostly standards. And I did some other gigs like that in Philly.
AAJ: You always hear people say that you have to learn that tradition before you can move beyond it. The limiting thing about that to me is that when most people say "the tradition," they mean the same twenty Tin Pan Alley composers plus Duke Ellington, Monk, Charlie Parker and a few others. You came out of a rich tradition, you learned the standards of another musical tradition, and then just took that in a different direction. Doesn't that help you stand out from the pack?
ES: That's true. It did have that kind of benefit. I always sounded like I was coming from a different approach to the jazz tradition. I think that was one of the reasons why a lot of guys hired me to be in their bands, because they liked hearing someone who was coming from a different perspective. It added a different sound. Someone who had an understanding but was coming from a different angle. I know for sure that was what Greg liked, and Bobby was the same. It worked to my benefit, but it always felt strange to me. I always felt like I had so much to learn and catch up on. Even just listening to a lot of American music, I felt like I was always behind. People would say, "Have you listened to such-and-such?" and I would have no idea who they were talking about. Great jazz artists like Bobby Timmons or Phineas Newborn. It was never-ending.
In The Studio
AAJ: Let's talk about your early recordings, starting with your first solo album, Beauty Within (AudioQuest, 1994). Was that just before you went with Terence?
ES: Yeah, that was just before I joined his band.
AAJ: Let's talk about that. How did you get the chance to make a record, and what was it like?
ES: It was very scary. I met Joe Harley, the producer and artistic director for AudioQuest, through doing other sessions on AudioQuest. I played on Victor Lewis' Family Portrait (AudioQuest, 2002). It was at that session that I met Joe Harley. I felt like I had enough material to make a record, and that encouraged me to get it out there and offer it to the world. I approached him and asked if I could do a record and he said "yes." So I approached [drummer] Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez and Anthony Jackson on bass
AAJ: It's nice work if you can get it.
ES: Yeah, right? Playing with those guysI was in heaven the whole time in the studio during the session. It was electrifying. Being around Anthony was such an incredible experience. I had been listening to him for quite some time. Of course I had heard him with [pianist] Michel Camilo's trio, and we got to play together for the first time in New York when I was playing in Roland Vasquez's band. Anthony is a very serious and intense musician, and I have always had respect for him.
I remember during the session, while we were recording, we were in the middle of a take and it was a very intense moment. I looked over at Anthony, and he had the most intense-looking weird face. He can really make some faces sometimes when he plays. I wasn't expecting that and I almost got scared by it. I had to look back at the piano to keep my focus so I could make it through the take. There are a lot of stories I could tell you about that session, but maybe for another time.
I first met Horacio in Italy. He had defected from Cuba to Italy. I went to Italy to play with Paquito D'RiveraI forget the year, maybe the early 1990sand Horacio was there. We played in a jam session and he said, "I'm coming to New York. I'll meet you there one day." And sure enough, one day I was at Paquito's house and there was Horacio. He had made it to New York. He played some of my tunes right there in Paquito's house and he sounded like he'd been playing them all of his life. That was how we hooked up and I decided to call him for my first record. He had just gotten to the States, too, so a lot of people didn't really know about him. But of course it wasn't long before he was playing with great artists like [keyboardist] Joe Zawinul.
AAJ: You went on to make a string of critically acclaimed records. You started with a trio but tended to add instruments over the years. I read that after doing a series of ensemble albums, you had the experience of playing on [bassist] John Patitucci's Songs, Stories & Spirituals album (Concord, 2003), and really found a chemistry with John and drummer Brian Blade that you decided to bring to your own record. How did you end up playing with John?
ES: I first started playing with John because he called me one day to play in his band. I'm not exactly sure how he heard of me. I think I might have been recommended by [pianist] Danilo Perez. That wasn't long after he had moved back to New York from L.A. He called me up, and I was very happily surprised to hear that we were going to be playing together. We melded together immediately in terms of friendship and musically. We made that record [Songs, Stories & Spirituals] with the rhythm section of John, Brian and myself. We played one track with just the trio. The chemistry felt so great that I promised myself that we would make a trio record one day, and it finally happened with Unicity.
AAJ: John and Brian were already partners as half of [saxophonist] Wayne Shorter's quartet.
ES: That's right. I had played with Brian before, too. He was on previous records of mine and a couple of live gigs as well. David Binney's new record Océanos (Criss Cross, 2007) has the same band as David's and my record Afinidad (RED Records, 2001)[bassist] Scott Colley and Brian Blade. It's sort of a sequel to Afinidad.
AAJ: Your new trio record, Unicity, covers a lot of musical ground. There are original compositions by various members of the band and by others including David Binney. It seems to explore the various ways that three musicians can play together. Will you talk about the album and the sessions that created it?
ES: One of the things I was trying to accomplish was for my writing to be more concise. My natural tendency is to write extended forms and long compositions that can be very involved. I wanted to make myself write in a more concise way. The tunes are shorter and simpler in terms of how much is written on the paper. They're more like a lead sheet with melody and chord symbols. There are a couple of tunes that are very open and vamp-like, where there's really very minimal stuff that's written down on paper. The idea was to give ourselves as much space as possible in the moment.
AAJ: Why were you interested in writing more concise tunes?
ES: Partially as an exercise to teach myself how to do that. Sometimes your weaknesses will show you who you are if you look at them and build upon them. I've always had an affinity for minimalism in music. That's one of the reasons I like artists like Miles Davis. So I wanted to push myself into writing shorter and simpler and less specific to help myself develop in that direction and see what I would find.
Another reasonalthough it's not a very important one, but it countsis that I don't have a very regular working trio. And certainly the band [on Unicity] was not a regular working trio. So when you write very complex music, it takes longer to assimilate it to the point where the performance is so well executed that you can focus on making music and getting the message across. Usually that can only happen when you've had the opportunity to perform the music live several times, and then you go in the studio and record. I don't have that luxury right now, so it's more efficient and productiveeven when you know that you have a trio with great musicianswhen you can get to that more quickly.
AAJ: Are there any tunes on the record that came out very differently from what you expected or intended?
ES: Not really. In general, I really heard those guys playing that music as I was writing it. They sounded even better than I imagined. One piece that was especially great was "Eastern," which is a very Eastern-sounding tune. The tune starts out with Brian doing some bells, then John starts improvising on the bass. I don't know exactly what he does, but he makes the bass sound like a sitar. It's really great.
AAJ: Why did you include the music of Catalan composer Frederic Mompou?
ES: I was first drawn to Mompou's music by [singer] Luciana Souza. Luciana and I did a duo record together called Neruda (Sunnyside, 2004) which is mostly her music set to the poetry of Pablo Neruda. But it intertwines with the music of Mompou. I started studying those pieces right before we made the record, and I immediately fell in love with this music. He's also a minimalist who tries to say the most with the fewest possible number of notes. That makes me feel like I can play this music honestly without having to bring out something outside of myself. I'm sure I'll be playing Mompou's music for years to come. In fact, I hope to record some of his solo piano music in the future.
On Unicity I chose one of his melodies ["Prelude No. 9"] and pretty much played it as written. Then I wrote a solo section based on the tune itself that I improvised on.
AAJ: You mentioned writing more concisely. The longest tune on the record is about seven minutes. That means not only did you have to write concisely, but you had to improvise concisely. What effect did that have on your improvising? Was that a particular challenge or joy?
ES: Quite frankly, I don't know. I haven't really thought about it. [laughs] We recorded the record in two sessions. On the first day, we recorded all but two tunes, and most of them were first takes. On the second day, we spent the whole day recording two compositions. One of them was "Evolution," which is probably the most involved composition on the record. I think the other one was the Mompou piece. It seemed pretty natural the way everything happened. It was very containedit just came out. It was quite a pleasure.
Edward Simon / David Binney, Océanos (Criss Cross, 2007)
Edward Simon, Unicity (Cam Jazz, 2006)
Edward Simon, Simplicitas (Criss Cross, 2005)
Luciana Souza, Neruda (Sunnyside, 2004)
Edward Simon / David Binney, Fiestas de Agosto (RED Records, 2003)
Edward Simon, The Process (Criss Cross, 2003)
Edward Simon / David Binney, Afinidad (RED Records, 2001)
Edward Simon, La Bikina (Mythology, 1998)
Edward Simon, Edward Simon (Kokopelli, 1995)
Edward Simon, Beauty Within (AudioQuest, 1995)