Gwilym Simcock - in the big family of music


Gwilym Simcock looks at his schedule for the next few weeks and expresses his appreciation for deadlines. There’s a Scottish tour with the Scottish Ensemble in April that includes the world premier of a new piece that Simcock has yet to write and some serious revision he has to do for an appearance at Cheltenham Jazz Festival in May.


"I never complain about having too much to do," says the pianist whose diary includes dates with the chamber jazz trio Acoustic Triangle, drummer Bill Bruford’s jazz-rock band Earthworks, contemporary composer Mark Antony Turnage, the BBC Concert Orchestra and various line-ups of his own, from trio up to forty-piece ensemble.


"My parents gave up a lot of time and money they probably couldn’t afford to put me through music studies," he continues. "So I’m just grateful to be doing something that I really love."


Simcock’s emergence as the twentysomething who appears able to switch from orchestral platform to jazz club stage without blinking wasn’t planned.


As the youngster who registered the highest marks in the country for his grade 8 exams, Simcock saw his future in classical music. Then, at fifteen, he was introduced to jazz by one of his teachers at Chetham’s, the specialist music school in Manchester where he’d boarded from the age of nine.


"Steve Berry’s his name and it didn’t mean anything to me at the time but he was the bass player in Loose Tubes, the London big band of the 1980s, two of whom play in my quintet now. Steve was just this brilliant music teacher we had and he gave me a cassette of some stuff that he thought I might like and a whole new world opened up to me," says Simcock. "There was a track by Keith Jarrett, Questar, which I thought was piano playing on a par with anything I’d heard in the classical world and I thought, I have to do this."


The more he listened to Berry’s cassette, the more Simcock came to appreciate the link between improvisation and composition.


"It occurred to me that I’d always improvised," he says. "From about the age of three I’d sit at the piano and make up these tunes, and suddenly I could see that that’s what jazz musicians were doing, composing on the spot."


The music that the three year old Simcock made may not have been Mozart or Jarrett, but it persuaded his parents that he had a talent worth pursuing. Initially he was home-taught by his mother but by the age of seven he was showing such progress that he was accepted by Trinity College of Music in London. Every Saturday he and his mother would set off at 4.30am from Cheshire so that Gwilym could have a thirty-minute piano lesson at Trinity.


Chetham’s and a second instrument followed, the french horn, which Simcock has gone on to play professionally with the great jazz trumpeter and composer, Kenny Wheeler, among others.


From Chetham’s Simcock moved on to the Royal Academy jazz course in London where he studied with leading British jazz pianists John Taylor and Nikki Iles. In his first year there he was already preparing for life as a professional music and appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe accompanying singer and scion of the broadcasting clan, Kate Dimbleby in her tribute to Peggy Lee.


He graduated from the Royal Academy with a first-class honours degree and the principal's special prize for outstanding achievement. Further prizes, including the Perrier Jazz Award and Rising Star at both the BBC and British Jazz Awards, weren’t far behind. He is also the first jazz musician to become a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist and recently gave the first performance of a piano concerto specially written for him by his colleague in Acoustic Triangle, saxophonist Tim Garland.


"People often ask me how I manage to work in two different genres," he says. "And I can understand that because there have been times, when I’ve been playing, say, functions or theatre gigs or whatever, when I’ve asked myself, what is it that I actually do? But while there can be different approaches to performance in jazz and classical, in both styles every note you play is important and as you develop a voice of your own, it comes out whatever it is that you’re playing."


He’s a great believer that jazz musicians should know their classical music and finds it odd when he meets people, musicians especially, who only like one style of music.


"There’s so much music out there and I absolutely love it when people recommend something to me," he says. "Because it’s like a huge family tree – and as a musician you’re constantly meeting new members of this family. I love working with pros, whether they’re jazz musicians or improvising dancers. I just feel that, as artists, we’re all in this thing together."


From The Herald, March 2007


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