A switch from the wonderful British based label Basho to the more internationally renowned ACT is indicative of the extent to which British pianist Gwilym Simcock’s star has risen in a short period of time. A classical piano prodigy, he switched to jazz at the age of 15, progressing to graduate from the Royal Academy of Music and very quickly becoming one of the most highly regarded talents of the music’s gifted younger generation.
His outstanding debut Perception showcased a trio with more established musicians Martin France and Phil Donkin, along with contributions from the saxophone master Stan Sulzman. The follow-up Blues Vignette was, by jazz musicians’ standards, fairly long in gestation. It suffered from something of an identity crisis, as Simcock’s classical preoccupations (in solo setting) were pitted against a second disc made with his new, younger trio with the brilliant drummer James Maddren and bassist Yuri Goboulev
Good Days At Schloss Elmau, actually recorded in just one day at the ACT label’s favourite recording location, is a solo piano work that at last successfully integrates the various strands of Simcock’s musicianship. The music here is frequently dreamlike, contemplative and beautiful, and Simcock’s technique and capacity for expression remain peerless. Hard swinging jazz is never likely to be his style, yet this has not stopped him from collaborating on an international scale with some of the best musicians in the US – in 2011, he will be touring with Mike Walker, Steve Swallow and Adam Nussbaum. No less an authority than Chick Corea has called him a ‘creative genius’. Simcock is increasingly respected for finding his own voice.
That being said, the influence of Keith Jarrett is arguably a little more transparent on Good Days… than on Simcock’s previous work. Although he has spoken in interviews about not being able to make the kind of music that explores rhythm at the expense of melody and harmony, the opening These Are The Good Days is perhaps the closest he has yet got to one of Jarrett’s intense pedal vamps. Similarly, the carefully structured harmonic cycle of Gripper also contains a vibrant rhythmic exploration. Northern Smiles has a light, nimble, dancing quality with brilliantly sustained single lines gradually broadening into contrapuntal explorations. These Are The Good Days is particularly compelling, a wonderful collision of rhythmic vigour, brilliant technique and fragments of direct, uplifting melody. Without a band to support him, Simcock frequently appears to be interacting with himself.
These exciting pieces contrast neatly with the album’s more romantic moments. Plain Song is crystal clear and wonderfully communicative, a considered and thoughtful piece played with an impressive lightness of touch. The album’s slightly sentimentally titled centrepiece is Can We Still Be Friends, a languid, meditative composition delivered with Simcock’s customary control and broad dynamic range. Here is the discipline and emotion of classical piano, coupled with the rich harmony and expressive scope of jazz.
Audiences should expect to hear more from Simcock later in the year, as the tour with Walker, Swallow and Nussbaum will also produce an album. Clearly, he is still developing as both a composer and performer. Whilst Good Days At Schloss Elmau is not afraid to acknowledge the classical styles and techniques that have informed his playing, it also features carefully integrated nods to the blues and to South African jazz. It’s an impressive and absorbing album, beautifully recorded, and it remains remarkable that music of this range and scope can be recorded by one person, on just one instrument in just a single day.