Gwilym Simcock brings fast fingerwork to Spoleto Festival

Gwilym Simcock

I am not going to compare Gwilym Simcock, the 33-year-old Welsh pianist performing six solo recitals as part of Spoleto Festival's jazz series, to Keith Jarrett. It's a little unfair.

First of all, Simcock wouldn't be pleased, I'm quite sure. Second, he's a bit different than Jarrett it turns out.

True, he's benefitted from intensive training and a love for, and proficiency in, classical music, which is obvious when he plays. His superb technique permits him to do all sorts of interesting things.

And, like Jarrett, he's an accomplished improviser who speaks the language of jazz with some fluency. Simcock and Jarrett both cross back and forth between the two genres freely, or simply meld them together until "genre" becomes indistinguishable, replaced merely by "music."

The two men also have in common an interest in solo recitals and in ensemble work, and both have garnered high praise by those aficionados who consider themselves well-versed in that in-between musical domain in which strains of Chopin or Grieg share the vibrant air with the melodies and phrasing of Herbie Hancock or Chick Corea.

But Simcock really is not anything like Keith Jarrett, not in the way he talks or carries himself on stage, not in the way he creates small compositions with intensely rhythmic, undulating textures that dominate fragmented melodic motifs.

Simcock is relaxed before his audience, humorous, engaging. He introduces the songs with lively anecdotes, endearing the listener, predisposing him to listen well. It is perhaps unfair to judge a musician, especially a talented and multifaceted musician with a variety of interests and pursuits, by a single, hour-long solo recital, but I couldn't help feel that the intense listening failed to pay off.

He started with the title tune from his latest record, "Good Days at Schloss Elmau," which swirled and pulsated around a central tonality. Tone clusters were generously employed, thickening the texture. Ocassionally, Simcock reached into the bowels of the Yamaha grand piano to strum or dampen the strings with one hand, while the other kept its fingers flying on the keyboard.

The effect was cool, but it didn't warm my blood.

The song "Antics," written for an eccentric London public music project, channeled the lilting second movement of Grieg's Piano Concerto. Simcock made it his own, a sort of jazz ballad he called it, with more of that throbbing, swirling sound he manages to elicit from the instrument.

Next came a tribute to Weather Report, and in particular to the band's virtuoso bass player Jaco Pastorius and its frontman, keyboard player Joe Zawinul. Simcock said Pastorius, a musical innovator who died tragically in 1987 at age 35, was the one guy he'd like to go back in time to meet. While Simcock was writing his tribute tune, Zawinul died (2007). I listened for melancholy but couldn't detect any. Instead the tune was more of the same, albeit a touch more angular in a Weather Report sort of way.

"Little People" was a tune inspired by a friend's dream populated with innocuous little people. Simcock found the dream worthy of a musical setting and wrote a tune with little melodic flurries and lots of fast fingerwork.

The recital ended with two tunes jammed together, "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" by Cole Porter and "On Broadway" by George Benson (the musician, not College of Charleston president). The performance featured more dense textures, more rapid-fire ostinato bass lines (Simcock likes to bring out that rumbling bass) and significant pizzazz. It prompted the patrons who filled the Simons Center Recital Hall to applaud standing up.

That was enough to secure an encore: a song called "Barber's Blues" in reference not to the place where one's hair is cut but to the American composer of the piece "Excursions" (among several others). This was an upbeat tune featuring jazz-like runs in the right hand while the left hand thumped out a quick, repeating pattern.

What was obvious was that the charismatic Simcock commands his instrument admirably and knows how to communicate with his audience. I'm just not sure what exactly he's trying to say.