Gwilym Simcock has been one of the UK’s leading lights in jazz for over a decade now, creating a style that is uniquely his own. Inspired by the great names who came to prominence in the seventies – Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius – Simcock also brings his background in classical composition to bear on his music. Simcock’s latest album, an impressive collection of solo piano pieces, Near and Now, was released in May of this year, to widespread critical acclaim. I spoke to Gwilym as he was preparing to play the compositions for the first time in London about his inspirations for this very personal work.
You are performing your solo album Near and Now at King’s Place on Friday 4th October at King’s Place. Will this be its first live performance?
It’s not the first outing for the album live, as it came out earlier in the year and I’ve performed it a few times over the last couple of months, but this will be the first opportunity to play it in London, and there’s nowhere nicer than King’s Place in the acoustics of that lovely hall.
I understand that you wrote much of the music when you were on the road with Pat Metheny?
Yes, I’ve been on tour quite a bit over the past few years, which is great experience, but you there’s always a danger that you find yourself with a lot of dead time on the road, which is a waste as I like to be productive and doing things. I had wanted to get on with a new solo record for quite a while as it was several years since the last (“Good Days at Schloss Elmau” from 2011), so on that particular tour last year I thought I’d get cracking and make the most of the time rather than just sitting in hotel rooms. So, for many of the cities we were visiting I’d phone piano shops or practice rooms in advance to give me a destination where I could play and write when I got there. I even worked in a cupboard at one of the concert halls, as that was where they kept the spare grand piano!
The pieces are much longer form than usual and have a nice sense of structure and architecture to them - is this something of your classical roots coming through?
Composition is a really important element in music for me; it can sometimes be a little neglected in terms of the jazz world because the focus is on improvisation, and rightly so, but it can come at the expense of writing a more structured composition. So that was really the impetus for Near and Now really, for me to write longer form, more structured music that would allow the listener to follow the arc of the story. One of the things I love is music that takes you on an emotional journey from beginning to end and then you look up and after 20 or 30 minutes, or even an hour, and you hadn’t realised the time had gone by as you’ve been wrapped up in the music. You don’t really get that payback when you listen to a piece of music that’s two or three minutes long - not that there’s anything wrong with that – but I suppose as you get older you realise that the music you want to make is the music you’d like to listen to yourself, and your tastes become a bit more crystallised and focussed. I do find myself going back to classical music these days as it has this beauty and structure to it, which jazz has as well, and that energy, but I think I want to bring the two together in my music.
Which composers have influenced you the most over the years?
I guess all the things you end up playing come from a pool of ‘stuff’ which is floating around your head, a composite of things that you’ve enjoyed over the years. One person I’m a huge fan of is Henri Dutilleux, the great French classical composer who died a few years ago. His first symphony is probably my favourite piece of music of all time; there’s something beautiful about that more contemporary classic world, where the harmonic world they create is like a vast open canvas. I love that side of it; harmony is hugely important part of music, and again without being a grumpy old man and ranting about it, is something that can be neglected in the modern jazz world. There’s lots of brilliant and clever things out there going on rhythmically but the harmony often comes second, which is a shame as to me it’s the most emotional element.
You recorded the album at your home; how did that differ from the studio, and did it affect the music?
Yes, I recorded here at home in Berlin, where I am sitting right now in fact. I’m about five minutes east of Alexanderplatz, so very central. I’m very lucky to have met a wonderful girl; we knew each other when we were students and reconnected about four years ago and then got married two years ago. She’s an incredible cellist and plays with the Berliner Philharmoniker, and has been here for around 15 years, and so through her I’ve inherited this amazing city as my home now, splitting my time between here and a cottage in the countryside outside Manchester. An added perk is being able to sit in the Philharmonie Hall and watch them for free. That’s certainly helped draw me back into classical music, which is my background, sitting in one of the best concert halls in the world watching one of the two or three best orchestras.
It doesn't sound like a home recording; what was your setup? Were you recording with a producer?
No, I did it all myself actually. One thing I did do was to hire a couple of Schoeps microphones, which captured the piano beautifully, and I recorded it with Pro-Tools; I would just press record, run to the piano and start playing. My piano is a twenty-year-old Hamburg Steinway B, renovated and effectively made better than new by a great company called Klangmanufaktur in Hamburg, a bunch of ex-Steinway employees working a cottage industry renovating old pianos. They buy old ones in auctions that can be in any state, but all have a great soundboard and frame, then they completely redo them, making them look incredible and inserting a brand new Steinway action, strings etc, so the result is a piano which feels amazing to play, but has an extra body and soul of an old piano.
What is coming up next for you, Gwilym?
Looming on the semi-distant horizon is my fortieth in February 2021, and thinking about that there’s a band that I’ve co-led for the past seven or eight years called The Impossible Gentlemen with the great guitar player Mike Walker from Manchester. We’re planning something reasonably large to celebrate (or commiserate) my birthday with a larger ensemble. These days it’s so tight with the money that it’s difficult to go out with any more than three or four people to make any financial sense, which is a dismal state of affairs but that’s the reality of it at the moment. But we’re looking to get something like an eleven-piece group together, so that should be fun. And I’m hoping to find more time to focus on composing and see where that takes me.