Pianist/composer Gwilym Simcock has achieved a lot in a short time. His debut album as leader, Perception
(Basho, 2007) was roundly praised as heralding the arrival of a significant new talent.
Prior to that Simcock had captured attention for lighting up Bill Bruford's Earthworks, Tim Garland's Lighthouse Trio and Malcolm Creese's Acoustic Triangle.
Awards and commissions began to roll in accompanied by a certain amount of hype; Chick Corea labeled him a "creative genius" and comparisons between the talent of Simcock and Brad Mehldau andKeith Jarrett soon became commonplace.
However, as the old saying goes there is no smoke without fire, and Simcock's ambitious double CD Blues Vignette (Basho, 2009) is an impressive distillation of his classical upbringing and his jazz soul, marking him out as an original voice.
Featuring Simcock solo, in a duo setting with cellist Cara Berridge and in a trio format with double-bassist Yuri Goloubev and drummer James Maddren, Simcock's eclecticism is never less than absorbing. The line between classical music and jazz is not so much blurred as wiped out. It is, as Simcock emphasizes, all just music.
All About Jazz: How did you find your way to jazz so late in life?
Gwilym Simcock: I had a classical music background but wanted to find a different angle. I was introduced to jazz whilst I was still at classical music school and found an area which is the one I seem to operate in now. This was really the only way to go . The first thing I heard of jazz was Keith Jarrett and of course the way he plays the piano has the classical sensibilities and that area felt completely like home.
At the time I got into jazz I was getting a bit fed up of going along to my piano lessons, where you're told how to play every single note. Then you do a lunchtime performance at music school and all the other people in the audience are playing the same piece of music and I didn't like that competitive right or wrong element of classical music.
So finding jazz where you find your way and create your own voice was a really major thing for me; for it to come along at that time was very fortunate. I left music school to and went to the Royal Academy of Music to do a jazz course.
I went away from classical music for a few years, but I've definitely come back to it in the last few years because you realize when you've spent so much of your life studying something then it seems like a shame not to utilize that in what you do. And you're trying to find a way to be yourself and sound different to everyone else. You've got to use what you've learnt and your background to create that voice, otherwise there's no substance to it.
There are lots of people crossing over between classical and jazz and it's maybe not such a unique thing as it was say ten or twenty years ago. There are the jazz purists and the classical purists who wouldn't like that kind of thing but I think it's a really valid area of music.
AAJ: Do you think these purists are becoming more marginalized?
GS: Maybe; it can be hard in England sometimes because once you get outside London and go to different places around the country people want to hear more what they know. I remember doing one gig up in the north of England a couple of years ago and I was playing my own music and the promoter came up to me at the interval and said: "I'm really enjoying it, it's fantastic, but can you throw them a lollipop?" meaning can you play something that people know and like.
Then if you go to Germany or Italy, or anywhere in mainland Europe you feel as if you can play exactly what you want to and people will accept that and sit back and appreciate that. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with the English mentality, but it would be nice if people thought that way sometimes.
The general demographics of the audience are funny, depending on what country you're in. I was in Korea not long ago with Tim Garland, and about seventy percent of the audience was females between the ages of twenty and thirty, which is amazing really. Of course it's different in England; it's very much older people, and older men. Trying to get women interested and young people outside of London is a great challenge.
AAJ: Any theory as to why the Korean demographic is like that? It seems very curious.
GS: No idea. It is very curious. It's a shame it's not like that elsewhere. In general it's hard to get young people interested in classical or jazz music, because it's so far away from the popular music of the day now that it's difficult to encourage young people to come along. Hopefully when they come to the concert they'll enjoy it but getting them through the door is a mighty struggle. I mean, here we are in Bangkok, a city of over ten million people and we can't even get four hundred people to come and see four very different bands.
it's a shame because when you have musicians creating music off each other which will never ever be that way again, a one-off performance, I think that should be something really exciting and really appealing, but unfortunately it doesn't seem to work like that. I think too often people are scared by it.
I guess you're trying to find a way of playing music without selling out which has its artistic integrity but which can appeal to as many people as possible, so you've got to have a strong thread of melody which is something people can really hang onto.
But out of the three elements of music, melody, rhythm and harmony the one that really appeals to me is harmony, but that's the thing people are least familiar with. You can have a good melody you can sing along to, a good rhythm, a good groove you can tap your foot to or clap to but you can't show any affinity or physical appreciation of harmony. But I think harmony is actually the element of music that can move you the most subconsciously.
If you take film music, say the theme tune for Jaws (1975), what makes that scary is the semi-tone, [hums theme for Jaws] but if you turn that into a tone [hums again] then it's happy. I'm fascinated by the little technicalities of changing something by a semi-tone can completely change the mood of the music, and that's something I'm always looking at with music --- the emotional side.