Near and Now: an espresso with Gwilym Simcock

Image Credits: Gwilym Simcock © Gwilym Simcock

April 28, 2020

Piano solo in Berlin

A solo album is probably the most demanding test for a musician, but also the one that gives the greatest freedom to express personal creativity. We interviewed the Welsh pianist and composer Gwilym Simcock who, with “Near and now”, releases his second solo piano album for ACT music.

> Ivano Rossato

Why a solo piano album?

Piano is such a special instrument, in that it can be a whole orchestra in itself. I trained as a pianist from a very young age and playing it as a solo instrument was always the natural way to be, coming from a Classical background. Of course the main point of jazz is communication and improvisation in a band setting, but writing and performing solo music remains a very important part of my musical life. I love the challenge of trying to create as many different sounds, textures and moods out of the piano, and that concept was very much a reason for this album.

I don’t want the listener to necessarily be aware of when the music is improvised or composed, I just want the overall journey of the music to be an enjoyable one. 

What differences do you feel compared to “Good Days at Schloss Elmau”, your previous solo album?
The music on this album, with one exception, is a lot longer form than on the Elmau album. Composition has become more and more of an important part of the music I make, and I feel this is something I can offer that allows me to be more of an individual. There are many great piano players out there, but many times I feel that, whilst the improvisation side is great, many times the compositions do not reach the same standard. For me both need equal work and attention, and this is what I aspire to do when working on a project like this one. For me improvisation and composition become one connected thing. I don’t want the listener to necessarily be aware of when the music is improvised or composed, I just want the overall journey of the music to be an enjoyable one.
How did you compose and select the songs for the album?
Mainly I thought about the structure of each piece, and what I wanted the listener to feel emotionally from each one, then – in a way – I filled in the spaces in this plan with the actual musical detail. As I said, I want improvisation and composition to be running together, side by side, so the main end result is how the music makes you feel when you hear it. Actually I wrote other tunes as well, but the album was full with just these, so maybe another time I will record the other ones!

You recorded at your home in Berlin: what do you think this choice has most influenced in the final result?
Well it was always a dream of mine to have a situation where I can record from home. I spent a lot of time touring in these last years, so the feeling of being and working from home is a great one! Of course the home is never going to sound like a concert hall, so I wanted to be honest with the sound world of the album. I hope that it is nice for the listener to feel close to the music and the source when you listen. I certainly felt that when I listened to Jarrett’s “The Melody at Night, With You”, and the fact that such a great master did this (especially so when you consider the sound of all of his other ECM albums!) gave me the courage to take the same route. Certainly in terms of the sound, if not the musical content.
How does your personal approach to the instrument change compared to playing with a band? What do you think is the greatest challenge for a pianist today?
I guess that the sad thing when you play in a band is that you don’t get to use the whole piano in the same way. Of course you must leave space for the other instruments, especially in the bass end for instance, and this really restricts your options on the instrument. And of course the exciting thing is that you’re playing with other musicians, which ultimately is much more important! When I’m teaching, I’m always encouraging to think about their approach to piano as a solo instrument. Then it is easier to subtract something when you play with other musicians. I think this is a good way to think. And another danger is that a musician thinks so hard about the playing, but not the composition. So that is a GREAT challenge for any pianist, or indeed any performing musician, to make sure that the material they are playing actually lives up to the same standard as their playing. Ultimately the beauty of music is that we all like different things, so there is absolutely no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to do anything, just a series of personal preferences that lead us to find the musicians that we look up to and whose music we love to listen to. I’m greatly honoured and humbled when anybody buys my CD, and I never stop being grateful that people would ever want to listen to my music. Every time I make a new album, I just hope people will accept it with my best intentions and that I tried to do my best with it – at that moment in time – both with the playing and the composing.
Near and Now: an espresso with Gwilym Simcock copyright Jazzespresso 2020.
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