Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
I started the piano when I was 3 (apparently!), and to be honest I’ve never for a second thought about the possibility of doing anything else. And I guess I might have to finally come to terms with the fact that – at 36 – Stoke City seemingly aren’t going to be calling me to play up front for them, so I guess I’m stuck with the music.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I had the great fortune to go to Chetham’s School of Music for nine years, during which time I had a fantastic education in the nuts and bolts of music, before going to the Royal Academy of Music in London to do the Undergraduate jazz course there. Having such a comprehensive training has certainly been invaluable in helping me adapt to, and survive in, the myriad of musical situations I tend to find myself in!
I’ve also been lucky enough to work with some amazing musicians over the last 20 years, and I’ve always tried to learn from everyone I’ve worked with, and every musical challenged I’ve undertaken. That’s one of the lovely things about being a musician – you never stop learning!
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Logistics! Replying to emails, booking flights, doing my accounts… The glamorous stuff!
In all seriousness being a freelance musician does come with a unique set of challenges, and surviving professionally, or professional surviving if you like (!) is right up there with the hardest of them.
Alongside that, I’ve always struggled with performance anxiety (a problem rarely discussed but frequently suffered by so many…) so dealing with that is always at the forefront of my mind.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
My last release under my own name, called ‘Instrumation’, features a chamber orchestra and I wrote, arranged, produced and mixed it all – so I’m very proud of that! Every album I’ve ever made I’ve tried to do to as high a standard as possible, and whilst your style, influences and sound inevitably change over time, hopefully the attention to detail and quality of your work can remain a constant feature of what you do.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
Unfortunately I don’t really get too much opportunity to play the more standard repertoire, but this is something I’d like to rectify at some point in the future. So I guess the answer would be – hopefully – my own!
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I guess this question, again, is a little bit irrelevant for my particular career! That said, I do really enjoy the wide variety of musical situations I end up getting involved in, and I guess there is a certain amount of reacting to what is requested of me that dictates the musical direction I end up taking. In terms of a more general direction, I certainly find myself enjoying the world that lies in between the composed and the improvised more and more, so the pieces from the ‘classical’ side that I get involved with tend to be those that lend themselves to this kind of treatment. I seem to come back time and time again to 20th Century French music, as the harmony and lyricism seems – to me – to be so strongly connected to the world of improvisation and harmonic exploration that I enjoy so much.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I was fortunate enough to perform my own music at the Proms back in 2008, and to play in the Royal Albert Hall, and in front of a live BBC television audience, was just the greatest thrill. I guess, with having a classical education, performing in that situation, on that iconic stage, felt like truly fulfilling a dream. Aside from the RAH, I’ve been so fortunate these last few years to play in hundreds of concert halls around the world, all different shapes and sizes and all fantastic in different ways, but I guess on a personal note – playing in the Bridgwater Hall in Manchester has always been a wonderful experience, as I remember seeing it being built from the very beginning when I was at Chetham’s in the 90’s – so finally getting to play concerts there as a professional musician has always been a special experience.
Who are your favourite musicians?
In terms of composers, Ravel, Debussy and Dutilleux are my favourites. Jazz musicians: well piano-wise my heroes have definitely been headed by Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and the wonderful, much-missed John Taylor. In a wider sense, the music of electric bassist Jaco Pastorius and guitarist Pat Metheny has always really been special for me. And aside from that, I always absolutely love listening to Steely Dan, Earth Wind and Fire, and Stevie Wonder. Hopefully that covers quite a bit for now!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
To achieve respect and appreciation from my fellow musicians has always been the main aspiration for me. Of course every concert I play, I really want to give the audience a wonderful evening and take them on a musical journey, but in a more general sense I think that question of what my legacy will be has become more and more important to me as the years pass. I try extremely hard to give everything I can to each project I’m involved in, so when things go well after all the hard work, it always makes for a satisfying moment!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
This would take quite some time to answer, but suffice to say I’m always encouraging my students to really try to put in the hours at the piano, as nothing can really replace good old-fashioned hard work! I do try to get them to try to stretch themselves creatively as much as possible, as, in the world of improvised and new music especially, developing and honing your own ‘voice’ and sound is of paramount importance. Again, there really isn’t any short cut to this, other than to put the hours in!
Gwilym Simcock performs at the London Piano Festival on 4 October. More information
Gwilym Simcock has carved out a career as one of the most gifted pianists and imaginative composers on the European scene. He moves effortlessly between jazz and classical music, with a ‘harmonic sophistication and subtle dovetailing of musical traditions’. Gwilym has been hailed as a pianist of ‘exceptional’, ‘brilliant’ and ‘dazzling’ ability, and his music has been widely acclaimed as ‘engaging, exciting, often unexpected, melodically enthralling, complex yet hugely accessible’, and above all ‘wonderfully optimistic’.
Gwilym’s influences are wide ranging, from jazz legends including Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny, to classical composers including Maurice Ravel, Henri Dutilleux, Béla Bartók and Mark-Anthony Turnage. Although principally a jazz artist, Gwilym has composed numerous works for larger Classical ensemble that combine through-composed elements with improvisation, creating a sound that is distinctive and very much his own.