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Musical Inventiveness

The Gwilym Simcock Trio,
enjoyed by REX HARLEY


If only someone had thought to give him a microphone, this evening in the company of Gwilym Simcock would have been quite perfect. As it was, those of us in the balcony had to work hard to hear what he was saying between numbers. In all other respects -- programme, performance, the quality and balance of sound -- I find myself reaching for my bag of superlatives.

Gwilym Simcock. Photo © Mary Dunkin
Gwilym Simcock. Photo © Mary Dunkin

The Gwilym Simcock trio sound as if they've been playing together for years, such is the level of rapport and mutual musical inventiveness. In fact, their first album came out only last year and this concert inevitably featured several numbers from it, beginning with two of the leader's own compositions: Almost Moment and A Typical Affair. It's always interesting to hear the difference between recorded and live versions of a tune; here the two pieces dovetailed neatly together in an expansive exploration lasting nearly half an hour. Early on, Simcock demonstrated his pleasure in using the inside of the piano, to vary tone and timbre, and the players stretched out, pulling the tunes into more abstract washes of sound and freer rhythmic interplay, without once losing the over-all architecture of the music.

Wyastone is very much a concert venue, and I'd wondered beforehand how much might get lost in this large, open space, both in terms of notes and atmosphere: trio performances being not so much typical as intimate affairs. I needn't have worried. This trio are consummate communicators, and it would be hard to imagine a more receptive audience. There was no applause after individual solos -- not even a sneeze or a stray cough to break the spell -- but the rapturous applause showed just how hard everyone was listening.

Most impressive, to me, during the first set, was a new piece -- Missa Nova -- which was receiving its first public outing. It's a lovely tune, a bit bossa, a bit blues, even a little gospel, which, on its maiden voyage already felt like a standard. And to the standards themselves the trio brought a joyful and idiosyncratic freshness. Their take on My One and Only Love came as close to perfection as this sort of thing gets. It began with an extended piano solo, so beautiful that I hoped it would remain solo; but when bass and drums entered it was merely to take the tune to new heights. This may sound like hyperbole, but I really believe that what we heard was one of those rare bits of chemistry which draw comparison with the legendary Village Vanguard performances of the Bill Evans Trio.

And, in Phil Donkin, Simcock seems to have found the perfect partner, just as Evans did with Scott la Faro. In style, he must be the most self-effacing bassist around, but the sound he makes and his technical brilliance have to be heard to be believed. He is also one of the most melodic players: his solos are elegant and bursting with musical intelligence; and he can tackle any tempo that's thrown at him. Ditto Martin France, who reminds me at times of another of Bill Evans' collaborators -- Shelly Manne. He glides effortlessly around his kit, creating backdrops that can be both subtle and thrilling, and quite as much about sound as rhythm.

Simcock himself is openly generous in his appreciation of his fellow musicians: a phenomenal player himself, he knows when he's well off. And he really is as good as all the hype. His dexterity on the keyboard is almost belied by the way he makes it look so easy. You can find yourself so mesmerised by what the right hand's doing that you miss the great harmonies being made by the left. Like, say, Brad Mehldau among current players, this is a genuinely two handed player (and sometimes it sounds like three!) His compositions are individual and assured, from the achingly lovely And Then She was Gone to up-tempo jaunts such as Spring Step. He already stands comparison with the best; future prospects make the mouth water.

For those of you who weren't there, your luck is in. Not only can you catch the trio at a variety of venues over the summer: the concert itself, in an edited version, will be broadcast as part of BBC Radio 3's 'Lunchtime Concert' series, during the week of 12 to 15 August 2008.

Copyright © 26 July 2008 Rex Harley, Cardiff UK


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