One of the quirky things about reviewing live streams for BSM during the London Jazz Festival week is that it has actually begun to feel that I’ve been going to different places- The Barbican, King’s Place, The Green Note, Café Oto, The Total Refreshment Centre and tonight it’s off to renowned jazz pianist Gwilym Simcock’s house in Berlin, via the 606 club on the Chelsea embankment. And there he is in a sharp white walled room, talking to us about tonight’s show from behind his piano, the very instrument which he used to write his last solo album ‘Near and Now’. That record referenced players that had been formative influences on Simcock’s playing- Billy Childs, The Yellowjackets’ Russell Ferrante and of course Brad Mehldau- and tonight’s stream will be the roots of ‘Near and Now’ Part Two, brand new compositions reflecting other jazz musicians who have been his inspiration.
There is a further back story behind the gig. Originally scheduled in the festival programme to be his trio revisiting their tribute to Jaco Pistorious, the live event was first trashed by COVID and then, with ‘Lockdown Two’ preventing Gwilym from leaving Germany, the plans demanded a further serious rethink. Ever resourceful, the festival and the stalwarts at 606 saved the day and set up this opportunity to catch a (virtually) intimate solo performance.
Simcock’s set started with one of those promised new tunes ‘The Rolling Hills’, dedicated to the phenomenal Fred Hersch and drawing on the American pianist’s deeply emotional playing. A calm delicate introduction gradually trickled into more resonant chord sequences before climbing back to the upper registers with a melodic lift. The lyrical beauty that defines much of Hersch’s work was very much in the air here but Simcock’s ability to stir up waves of chiming sound was the foundation for this breath-taking first number.
Next up came ‘Through the Haze’ which Gwilym explained aimed to draw on the same brooding atmospheric tension that he heard in Miles Davis and Gil Evans ‘Sketches of Spain’. There was plenty of dark intensity in the rumbling chords echoing around this composition but out of the shadows came brighter rhythms and flamenco flavoured runs. Right up until the sparse, more minimal, closing sections you were never quite sure which turn this epic was going to take – that was the drama, mystery and excitement of it.
Distilling such a range of influences into a set could have run the risk of breaking up the flow of the event but the pacing and the warmth of Simcock’s presentation kept you with him throughout. At one point after the captivating intricacy of ‘Interjection’, his tribute to Cuban jazz giant Gonzalo Rubalcaba, he paused for a glug from his water bottle and with a wry grin wondered if he could go to the kitchen to make a coffee instead. Resisting the temptation he glided back into a sumptuous cover of Kenny Wheeler’s ‘Everyone’s Song But My Own’ where the tune rippled emotionally alongside some strident Jarrett-like sections.
An hour in and it was time for Gwilym’s last scheduled number, another fresh composition, this time drawing on the rhythmic vitality of the great Chick Chorea’s music. The tune certainly had an energetic spring about it, at times intriguingly reconstructed with more broken beats as Simcock brilliantly explored all possibilities. For a final treat our host then decided to send us home or as he said ‘to another room in your house’ with some gentle exit music, a torch song with a yearning melody, nostalgic maybe for those late night streets and the midnight hours where jazz resides. As the last chord faded he thanked us for watching and hoped that he would play these tunes in the same physical space as some of us soon. I am sure most of the digital audience shared that feeling but until that time we logged off contentedly, knowing that we had received the most real and generous compensation.