Interview with Rick Simpson, jazz pianist
Award-winning jazz pianist and composed Rick Simpson makes his 7 Star Arts debut at The Jazz Room at The Bull’s Head on 26th June
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 latest album with his band Klammer is available now on the Two Rivers Records label
This interview first appeared The Cross-Eyed Pianist blog