Gwilym Simcock: ‘I have always struggled with performance anxiety’
The classically trained Welsh jazz pianist is lauded for his fearless musical explorations, but recording his latest album at home freed the 38-year-old from pressure
Gwilym Simcock in his home studio in Berlin with his Steinway Model B. Photograph: Gregor Hohenberg
Gwilym Simcock recorded his latest album, the marvellous Near and Now, at home in his apartment in Berlin on his 120-year-old Steinway. It’s the sound of a generous and curious musical mind, roaming the frontier where the division between the written and the improvised disappears, spaces the classically trained jazz pianist has spent most of his 38 years exploring.
“It was something that I always wanted to do,” he says, “to be in a situation of recording an album at home. I don’t know whether this is suitable material for an interview,” he adds with typical self-deprecation, “but I don’t really enjoy recording very much. Something I have always struggled with, to be honest, is performance anxiety. Where that comes from I don’t know, whether it’s just trying to do the best you can, but it’s always been a little bit of a restricting element to creativity, so the idea of being able to record at home – where you can sit on the sofa and then feel like doing something and run to the piano and do a bit of playing – takes that pressure away. That’s sort of an appealing concept for me”.
For a musician at the peak of his powers, lauded internationally by critics and fellow musicians, Simcock is endearingly modest, ready to admit to the sort of insecurities you wouldn’t readily associate with a musician who has been described by jazz legend Chick Corea as “a creative genius”.
The Welsh-born pianist has been drawing that kind of praise since he emerged on the London scene in the early noughties. When his first solo recording, the superb Good Days at Schloss Elmau, was nominated for a Mercury Prize in 2011, it was clear that Simcock was going to be a force to be reckoned with in jazz. But his star ascended to an altogether higher plane in 2016 when the call came to join legendary guitarist Pat Metheny’s quartet, which has seen the pianist tour the world playing to large and adoring audiences, and has placed him amongst the most respected and influential pianists of his generation.
Longueurs of touring
The music for Near and Now, which was released on the German Act label earlier this year, was written amid the longueurs of international touring, as Simock criss-crossed the globe with Metheny, but it took on a new life when he finally got home to Berlin.
“I’ve been working very hard the last couple of years on tour,” he says, “and trying to save a bit of money from that, so it was time to make an investment and buy a really good instrument that will last the rest of my life.”
It was a satisfying process to go from writing the music to recording it, to mixing it, to having an album at the end
He is clearly delighted with his new piano. “It’s a Steinway Model B,” he enthuses. “I found this incredible place in Hamburg called Klangmanufaktur, where they find old pianos that are really good, in the sense that they have a really good frame and a good soundboard, and they completely rebuild them, so it’s basically a brand new piano, but with an extra degree of soul and depth to the sound quality that you don’t really get with a new piano.
“And the apartment we have here in Berlin has got this great room with a really high ceiling, and the dimensions are perfect for recording. I put some nice microphones on it and did all the recording myself. Maybe I’m a bit of a control freak but it was a really satisfying process to go from the writing of the music to recording it, to mixing it, to having an album at the end of it all.”
He readily acknowledges the influence of Keith Jarrett’s beautiful home-recorded 1999 album, The Melody at Night, with You, made by the renowned US pianist when he was recovering from the chronic fatigue that threatened to end his career. Though the atmosphere of Simcock’s album is brighter, and the long-form compositions are all original (Jarrett’s was a set of short takes on much-loved standards), Near and Now shares the same sense of intimacy, of a great pianist alone with his thoughts, unencumbered by expectation.
It’s no coincidence that Jarrett also featured on the mixtape that first turned Simcock on to jazz. The only son of artistically inclined parents (his father is a church organist, his mother a schoolteacher with a keen interest in the arts), he was playing piano from the age of three and was always destined to be a musician. After home schooling until the age of nine, he gained admission to the prestigious Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester, and looked set for a career in classical music. But it was at Chetham’s that he began taking an improvisation class with ex-Loose Tubes bassist Steve Berry, and everything changed.
“Steve made me a cassette that definitely changed my life,” says Simcock. “It was jazz, but it had great harmony and great melody and great form to it – Keith Jarrett, Egberto Gismonti, the Pat Metheny Group – music that had all the elements that I loved.”
Bach was the first big improviser. He started it all, and if he was alive now, he’d be absolutely loving jazz
Twenty years later, these are still musicians that Simcock reveres. “Absolutely,” he agrees readily, “and of course that’s not a coincidence, that was Steve’s skill, because he knew those tracks would make sense to a classical musician. I’m so grateful to him for that. He could have made something that was more jazz, which had less connection to classical music that wouldn’t have drawn me in in the same way, so I’m very grateful to him for setting it up in that way that I could understand it”
“I find myself going back to the greats in the genre, like Keith Jarrett or Egberto Gismonti, to get that emotional connection with the music. That’s something I always really try to aspire to, is to try and make some music that can engage people emotionally because, for me, that’s what I want to listen to. I guess it all boils down to personal taste, really, and for me, if there isn’t that element of a strong composition in the music, then it becomes a little trickier to get emotionally on board.”
As Simcock prepares to travel to the New Ross Piano Festival, to play for what is predominantly a classical music audience, he admits to being frustrated by the definitions and divisions that continue to separate composed music from improvised music.
“Bach was the first big improviser,” he says. “He started it all, and if he was alive now, he’d be absolutely loving jazz, no question about that. It gets frustrating, I guess, being a musician sometimes, because you get told what you should and shouldn’t do, and at the end of the day, all you’re trying to do is make some nice music. Things can get over-complicated, I think, with the terms and the pigeonholes, when all you want to do is really make the music that you’d like to hear yourself.”
Gwilym Simcock performs at the New Ross Piano Festival on Thursday September 26th September