Monday, February 25, 2008

'Oh no, I almost stepped in me cake!'

Gwilym Simcock @ The Vortex, London 24/2/08

The sedate, candlelit, table-and-chairs set up at London’s Vortex Jazz Club provides an appropriate ambience for Gwilym Simcock’s performance, which veers between the playful and the richly emotive. Simcock has had an intriguing career so far, establishing himself as a pianist of international standing through his contributions to collaborative projects (Acoustic Triangle, Neon) and as a band member for other composers. It’s taken him a good five years to produce an album under his own name, but ‘Perception’ is as audacious and inspired a record as anyone could hope for.

It’s Gwilym’s birthday tonight, which lightens the mood somewhat and makes for an entertaining evening. It’s conceivable that he’s a musician who could come across as too intense, perhaps even po-faced – a prodigious talent who appears to have devoted every waking hour to practising. Yet tonight’s gig is genuinely a lot of fun, with Vortex manager Ollie Weindling presenting Gwilym with a rather meagre-looking birthday cake.

Simcock adheres to the two set jazz club formula tonight, but keeps matters interesting by playing the first set in a trio set-up and the second set with his full sextet (featuring legends Stan Sulzman and John Parricelli). The first set reveals Simcock’s formidable technique and improvisational flair (he threatens that his birthday allows him to take extra long solos). There’s also plenty of evidence of his extraordinary polyrhythmic invention, from ‘Spring Step’ and its tetchy shifting between half time, double time, swung and straight rhythms to his arrangement of ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ which is truly fearsome in its audacity. Luckily Phil Donkin and Martin France are equals in this regard, France particularly revelling in the opportunity to display his dexterous daring behind the kit. Sometimes he plays a little too frantically, and certainly too loudly, but his constant risk-taking is admirable.

The first set also displays a side of Simcock’s writing and playing that might be too easily ignored. First of all, there’s a strong celebratory streak, much of it seemingly drawn from African harmony and rhythm. There’s also a clear playful quality too, and even in the midst of his most questing solos, Simcock is unafraid to strip things back down to their bare essentials, concentrating on developing simple ideas and motifs to their logical conclusions. There are plenty of teasing suggestions and subtle understatements too. He’s also keen to exploit the full range of sounds from the piano, frequently muting notes or plucking the strings directly.

Such predilections and themes are extended in the sextet set, which benefits greatly from the addition of the excellent young percussionist Ben Bryant, who, surreptitiously hidden behind a pillar at the back of the stage, creates constantly fascinating sheets of sound from an entire plethora of instruments. For much of this set, Simcock weaves tunes together, to make the most of the contrast between languid poignancy and joyful exuberance. The latter is most clearly evidenced on the intricate ‘Snakey’, but the two moods combine to intoxicating effect on a splendid ‘Time and Tide’. It takes Stan Sulzman a disconcertingly long time to realise he’s painfully out of tune, but once this is corrected, the music becomes thrillingly alive. With gleeful irreverence, Simcock promises to end the set with a ‘little country number’. He’s not too far from the truth, as the piece which follows hinted so strongly towards Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ that I wondered whether it might be a bold re-arrangement of that very tune. It certainly grooved as righteously as anything I’ve heard in some time.

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