2011 has already been a substantial year in the career of British pianist and composer Gwilym Simcock, with the release of his solo piano album Good Days At Schloss Elmau on the ACT label. This collaborative venture, his second release of the year, without doubt places him in the most exalted company he has yet experienced, with the great American musicians Steve Swallow and Adam Nussbaum here as imperious timekeepers and ceaselessly creative forces. Yet the star of this particular project turns out not to be Swallow, Nussbaum or Simcock but rather the unsung genius that is Mike Walker. Although he has recorded with the likes of Peter Erskine, Kenny Wheeler and George Russell, Walker’s name remains under-appreciated in his own country, perhaps simply due to hailing from outside the London jazz bubble. This excellent album should help to correct this injustice.
Walker contributes four compositions here, all of which are assured and sophisticated, not least the tricksy Laugh Lines (as its title suggests, there is a sense of humour here as well as displays of technical proficiency). One in particular, the effortlessly melodic Clockmaker, is very special indeed. Walker’s improvising is arguably even more notable than his informed writing. He appears to be able to find the melody in just about any sequence – and his sound is always crisp and authoritative. He provides exactly the right language for any given situation – sometimes he is rapid and excitable but, more frequently, he is patient and eloquent. On Nussbaum’s slow but muscularly swinging Sure Would Baby, he is biting and aggressive. His ability to blend with Simcock’s piano is impressive – and it lends this music a supreme coherence and shape.
In fact, The Impossible Gentlemen is an almost unfashionably lyrical recording, mostly free from the post-Steve Coleman concerns that characterise a lot of contemporary jazz. Rhythm is of course a key element, and all these players are flexible and free from constraints. The overriding sense here, however, is of the quality of the melodic lines. Simcock’s tendency towards virtuosity is relatively restrained – and here he often exercises his more contemplative side. His playing on Walker’s ballad When You Hold Her is magnificent. The strong melodic emphasis extends right through to drummer Nussbaum’s supremely supportive phrasing and brilliantly executed dynamic and textural contrasts at the kit. Throughout, there is a romantic and expressive side to this music. As in all jazz, interaction is a potent force in this supergroup, but the musicians are wise and intuitive enough to know that sensitivity can have equally as strong an impact.
Perhaps the only disappointment here is that the group’s most experienced player, the wonderfully gifted Steve Swallow, has not contributed any of his own writing. He is a composer of some renown, having written a number of modern standards (Willow and Ladies In Mercedes among them). In live performances, the group have ventured into his compositional history and even a reworking of one of his iconic pieces would have been pleasing enough.
This is a very minor quibble however when the quality of writing and improvising here is so high and when the group are so refreshingly bold in pursuing their own, honest, very personal directions. Although the presence of two high profile Americans might make it a controversial choice, Walker and Simcock certainly deserve the raised profile that a Mercury nomination would bring.