A peaceful ostinato figure, grounded and tranquil, opens the work. After a few bars, a serenely beautiful yet simple melody is heard in the treble which melts into a series of increasingly complex variations, the initial theme dissolving into trills and grace notes, gossamer fiorituras and filigree passages. The curve of complexity turns full circle when the theme returns in its original form at the end.

This could quite easily be a description of Chopin’s lullaby, the Berceuse, Op 57, composed in 1845, but in fact the work in question was recorded some 100 years later for the jazz album ‘Everybody Digs Bill Evans’.

Bill Evans’ ‘Peace Piece’ came out of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Some Other Time’ (from On The Town). Evans borrowed the ostinato bass figure and improvised an increasingly decorative treble line over the top of two chords which remain the same throughout, just as in Chopin’s Berceuse.

What happened was that I started to play the introduction, and it started to get some much of its own feeling and identity that I just figured, well, I’ll keep going

– Bill Evans

While Chopin’s Berceuse, with its sense of freely evolving improvisation and fresh decorative ideas, is the most obvious model for ‘Peace Piece’, the work is also redolent of Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies (that repeating bass figure again) and the slow movement of Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto. The trills and figurations in ‘Peace Piece’ are also reminiscent of birdsong; Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux was just appearing, but whether Evans actually knew this music is not known.

Evans, a jazz pianist by profession, was classically-trained at Southeastern University and Mannes School of Music, and his fondness for and mastery of classical repertoire (including by Bach, Chopin, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Ravel and Debussy) gave him extraordinary expressive freedom and inspired some of his greatest jazz innovations.

Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned with feeling being the generating force

Bill Evans

‘Peace Piece’ has a wonderful static, meditative calm, and in both ‘Peace Piece’ and Chopin’s Berceuse, the ostinato serves as a unifying, grounding element from which ideas flower and evolve over an extended narrative arc, while the reprise of the opening melody creates a sense of departure and return. Evans’ music, like that of Chopin, and also Scriabin, Debussy and Ravel, combines economy of musical statement with highly original melodic and harmonic concepts (in bars 47-49 of ‘Peace Piece’, for example, Evans uses a free tonal approach reminiscent of Prokofiev). He used oblique harmonies based on whole-tone scales, and abandoned functional or structural harmony, so that chords are specifically used for colour and timbre rather than strict harmonic progression. There is an introspective lyricism and intimacy in both his sensitive piano playing and his compositions which defies categorisation, proof that in great music creative influences transcend time and genre.

Evans refused to play ‘Peace Piece’ live, insisting it was the result of a unique moment in the recording studio, a moment which could not be recreated in concert (though he did eventually perform it just once, two years before he died).

Many classical pianists admire Bill Evans and ‘Peace Piece’ remains one of his most influential piano solos, some 40 years after his death. The French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet pays tribute to Evans’ genius in his ‘Conversations With Bill Evans’ album, and Russian pianist Igor Levit uses ‘Peace Piece’ as a fittingly consoling conclusion to his album ‘Life’. The British composer Gavin Bryars wrote ‘My First Homage’ (1978) as a homage to Bill Evans.

The score of ‘Peace Piece’ is published as a “written out improvisation”, offering the pianist the opportunity to either play it verbatim or to explore their own improvisations. Playing it can feel like a meditation, where time stands still – something an audience will sense too when the music is played well. It needs accuracy and attention to detail but also a willingness on the part of the performer to stand back and let the music just “be”, to exist in the moment of creation – as Evans insisted it should in that 1958 recording.

To me Bill was the Chopin of jazz. He was a great artist.

– Jimmy Rowles (1918-1996), American jazz pianist, vocalist, and composer

 


If you enjoy the content of this site, please consider making a donation towards its upkeep:

Buy me a coffee

 

images

It could have been any night at the Wigmore Hall, London’s ‘sacred shoebox’: the grand piano stretched across the stage like a gleaming limousine, the anticipatory hum of conversation in the foyer, people chatting in the bar…

Except it wasn’t any other night.

For me, it was my first experience of jazz at the Wigmore. It felt right, because for a jazz ingénue like me, it was easy to walk into a venue I know well for music which I didn’t know. It felt comfortable. The atmosphere was different, however, and the audience younger.

It all began in a familiar way – the lights dimmed, the pianist crossed the stage to the piano, his body language quiet and composed. Then that first piece, hushed, tender, elegantly voiced. Not “jazz” as I understood the term, but something which transcended the boundaries of genre. I heard Debussy, Scriabin, Ravel, a dash of Messiaen, a hint of Radiohead in the colourful, piquant harmonies. The piano sound was gorgeous, restrained, perfectly nuanced.

After the second piece, jazz pianist Jason Moran turned to the audience.

“People like me don’t play in halls like this” he said.

There was a burst of laughter from the audience, but this was no joke. Go into the green room at the Wigmore, where performers, Moran included, wait before going on stage, and you’re surrounded by photographs of others who have performed in this hallowed hall: there’s not a single person of colour amongst them.

The enormity, the responsibility, the flow of history and heritage weighs heavily on every performer playing at the Wigmore. And Moran clearly felt it too – only more so. Added to this, the night before he’d played at the Beethovenhaus in Bonn, with a portrait of the Old Radical staring right back at him as he sat at the piano. Imagine how that felt? He dedicated his Wigmore concert to “everyone who has walked across this stage”.

History was felt too in the stride number Carolina Shout, a hommage to Moran’s jazz forebears James P Johnson and Teddy Wilson. It was the only piece in the programme which felt like “real” jazz to me. Contrast it with Magnet, an earthy, dark, rumbling piece largely confined to the lowest registers of the piano which revealed sonorities and resonances rarely-heard – the echo of a voice shouting into a cave, drums and strings, bassoons, even the thrum of helicopter rotorblades….it reminded me of Somei Satoh’s Incarnation II, another piece which capitalises on the piano’s resonance.

Another work had the pulsing, looping hypnotic repetitions of Steve Reich. In all the playing, and his introductions to the pieces, Moran revealed himself to be a compelling communicator, creating connections through words and sound which drew us in, made us listen attentively – and made us think.

But it was in the more soulful, expressive and introspective numbers that I found most to admire – never before have I heard so many colours, nuances, subtleties of timbres from the Wigmore Steinway as in Moran’s hands. His first encore was achingly tender, so poignant, so intimate; the second more upbeat, a piece with the rhythmic drive to rouse us from our seats to offer a standing ovation.

“It’s all just music!” said my jazz pianist friend Rick Simpson when we were having a drink after the concert. And he’s right – it is all just music, regardless of genre or period. And on Friday night it was just music – and music making – of the highest order.

 

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.

Read more

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

Seeing Herbie Hancock perform in 1983

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Herbie Hancock, Julian Joseph, John Coltrane.

You are performing in the London Piano Festival this October – tell us more about this? 

I’ll be performing material from my latest solo piano album ‘Held’. Also I’ll be playing my versions of music by Paul Mcartney, Sting and Errol Garner

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Playing ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ with the Hallé Orchestra and arranging for them too.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

‘Enter the Fire’ – Tim Garland, ‘Make it real’ – me, and ‘Anything but look’ -me.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

Hard to say, I enjoy many styles of jazz.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I go with what feels right to me.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Anywhere with a nice piano and a nice sounding room is fine with me.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I like Ivo Neame, Julian Joseph, Gwlym Simcock and Wayne Shorter at the moment…

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Playing at the Albert Hall with Sting.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

To never forget that music is for enjoyment and communication.

 

For the closing concert of the London Piano Festival, Jason will perform material from Held as well as music from Sting to Errol Garner and beyond. Full details here

 

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

Hmm…that’s hard to say. I think by the time I knew I wanted to music I hadn’t really met anyone or seen any concerts – I just knew that I loved playing the piano and making up little tunes. It wasn’t really until I found Jazz that I knew exactly what it was that I wanted to be doing. Before that I was quite unfocused and split my time between doing the grades and playing music from musicals and coming up with my own arrangements of them. My old piano teacher used to give me hell for not playing what was on the page, but I think that I’d always enjoyed playing around with music made the transition into Jazz piano at the age of fifteen more comfortable.

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career?

My classical piano teacher at Guildhall, Laura Roberts, has probably had the biggest influence on my musical life. She’s been a close friend and ally over the years and even though we rarely see each other now she still has a big influence over me. She pulled me out of so many bad habits at the piano – before I met her I really had very little idea of how to play the piano properly so she really turned my life around. I’m still trying to work on the simple ideas she presented me ten years ago.

For Jazz if I had to name one figure it would be Keith Jarrett. He was my first real love in music and the first pianist I ever heard. I’d never listened to any famous classical pianists before, or really even any piano music in general and when I first heard Jarrett it was mind-blowing and I devoured everything I could get my hands on. What can I say about Jarrett that hasn’t already been said! To me he’s the biggest musical genius of all time. 

Other than Jarrett there came a time in my life around the age of 21 where I felt like the African-American lineage of Jazz Piano had a greater pull for me. Before then I was quite into the Bill Evans – Brad Mehldau – ECM sound, and I still love that, but the Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Wynton Kelly, Herbie Hancock lineage really took over at some point. Its all beautiful and it ultimately all comes from the same place but I always want to keep on working on what is a Black American art form. Even though my own music comes from a lot of influences outside of Jazz I won’t ever stop trying to get together what Charlie Parker and Bud Powell were doing in the 1940s.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far? 

I think anxiety has held me back massively. Its only been in the last two years where I’ve felt happy on stage. I used to be a nervous wreck and it showed. That’s really held me back and I feel like I need to make up for lost time but I’m generally a lot happier and settled than I was in my early and mid-twenties.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I would say that the music I’ve written over the last four or five years has come from not thinking of tonality or chords. None of the music from my new record has any chord symbols in it. I wanted to get away from the sound that I felt that I’d heard too much of in the London Jazz scene – music which has been clearly written with a single melody line over a set of sometimes quite bleak chords. Kenny Wheeler has been a huge influence on a lot of people in London but I had to get as far away from that sound as I could. When I write music these days the composition is first and the improvising is second. At some point I’ll go back to writing very small compositions that serve as vehicles for improvising but right now with my band Klammer the music is about the compositions.

How do you work?

I work very slowly, which is of great annoyance to me. I know some people who can write several tunes in one sitting, but I don’t think that works for me. I’ll write a couple of bars and then I’ll forget about it for days on end, and then come back to it and add a few more. I’d like to get things out faster but sometimes I think leaving things can cause you to come back afresh and take the music somewhere else. 

Often I think its helpful to know what you want to write before you start. That’s worked well for me in the past where I’ve wanted to write the fast tune/the ballad/the straight 8’s odd time tune, but these days I just sit and see what comes out.

Who are your favourite musicians/bands/composers?

Modern musicians/bands that pose a huge influence on me these days are Jason Moran, Django Bates, Matt Mitchell, Steve Lehman, Steve Coleman, Radiohead, Animal Collective, Deerhoof, John Hollenbeck, Wayne Shorter, Steve Reich, Liam Noble, people like that. I love hip hop, techno, ambient, singer-songwriter music too and it all runs together.
And from the past – Thelonious Monk, Stravinsky, Ravel, Bach, Schubert, Billie Holiday, Mahler, Messiaen.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Seeing the Wayne Shorter Quartet playing music from outer space in 2006 at the Barbican Centre. It was without doubt the most incredible music I’ve ever heard. People in the audience were screaming during the encore, it was so super-charged. There’s a recording of it out there somewhere…That band is on the farthest outer edge of what’s possible. No one is doing what they can.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Ronnie Scott’s. It took me a long time to make peace with the piano – that piano kicked my ass! I had to really learn how to play grand pianos and its only been in the last two years where I’ve felt comfortable playing one – but now I love playing there. The atmosphere and sound are perfect and I would play there every week if I could. I’ve had some great gigs there recently with Leo Richardson’s Quartet and it just feels like the perfect place for that music.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Be friendly. Get your social skills together. Never, ever rely on what you perceive to be as your talent, its not enough. When I was younger I didn’t feel confident in some social situations and used to hope that I could just get by on my playing. You can’t – you have to go out there and meet people and make friends.

For Jazz musicians I’d say get as much together as you can. Don’t just do one thing, get it ALL together. It’s all as equally important and the more you have in your tool box the more exciting your improvising will be. It’s not fun when you know how someone is always going to sound. Jazz should be the sound of surprise. Tape yourself. Play classical music too, its all in there.

Other than that just practice as much as you can, see as much of life as you can and don’t worry if things don’t happen straight away. Never get lazy or complacent. When I was younger I noticed that some older musicians who I used to worship had done so and I vowed I would never slack off. The only person who can help you get better is yourself.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Still practicing and trying to get better. I still feel like a beginner and I still don’t feel like I’ve achieved anything and I don’t really want that feeling to go away. It keeps you moving. That said, if I’m still doing what I’ve done over the last few years in ten years time I’ll be very happy. I’d just like to do more of it and eventually move into teaching at one of the music colleges. I love this life and I just want it to last a long, long time!

Rick Simpson’s new album with his band Klammer is available now on the Two Rivers Records label

Rick Simpson is based in London playing a wide variety of music, and leads his own group playing original jazz music. Rick is a regular performer at Ronnie Scott’s, the 606 Jazz Club, Pizza Express Dean Street, The Vortex, The Bull’s Head, and he has appeared at larger UK venues such as the Royal Festival Hall and the Purcell Room. In 2008 Rick won a Yamaha Scholarship Prize for Outstanding Jazz Musicians. A recording of Rick’s band was put on the front cover of Jazzwise Magazine.
Since graduating from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2008 he has performed with musicians such as Christian Scott, Eric Harland, Joe Sanders, Michael Janisch, Ernesto Simpson, Martin Speake, Earl Burness Travis, Stan Sulzmann, Jeff Williams and Brandon Allen as well as younger musicians in London. Rick plays in the ensembles of Jay Phelps, Tim Thornton, Tommy Andrews, Leo Richardson, Paul Riley, and US Jazz Singer Hailey Tuck amongst others

Rick also teaches on the prestigious MEhr Clef courses alongside Stan Sulzmann, Steve Waterman, Alan Barnes, Malcolm Edmonstone Mark Hodgson, Lee Gibson, Ursula Malewski and Martin France.

www.ricksimpsonjazz.com