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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


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

This interview first appeared The Cross-Eyed Pianist blog

Meet the Artist – Rowan Hudson, jazz pianist

The nature of improvised music means that it’s very rare that everything falls together perfectly in real time, and in a way that’s not the point.

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

It’s actually very hard to pin it down to anything very concrete, I think partly because I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a musician I’ve forgotten what the original motives were (and they were probably very different to what they are now), but it was probably around the age of 9 or 10 that everything else became secondary to music. I don’t think I ever really made the conscious decision to play the piano rather than any other instrument either. We had a piano in our house growing up and I had taken lessons from the age of about 7, so that sort of solved it for me. The piano is such a versatile instrument that it was able to keep up with my changing tastes in music and I never felt like I needed to look elsewhere for the sounds I was trying to make.

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

Apart from a couple of years of just wanting to sound exactly like Bill Evans, I don’t think I’ve been one of those musicians who has one main influence who is their ultimate musical guide, which tends to happen a bit in Jazz. Within Jazz the players who have influenced me are people like Ahmad Jamal, Liam Noble, Monk, Kit Downes, and I like them all for different reasons. For example I don’t think my playing resembles Ahmad Jamal’s at all, but his use of space has had a big impact on me, and the way in which everyone in his trio with Israel Crosby and Vernel Fournier is equally important, but there are very few bass solos or drum solos has changed the way I think about trio playing.

Outside of Jazz Robert Wyatt has been a huge influence, both as a drummer and a songwriter. His music has always felt extremely honest to me and he manages to break conventions without it sounding self consciously ‘different’. Some classical composers, particularly people like Frederick Delius and York Bowen have influenced my writing and my improvising as well, especially in their ability to form long compositions from very small, simple motifs. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to decipher the harmony in Delius’ music (I even started writing an online blog on it) and i’ve noticed that starting to creep into my music as well.

In terms of writing music I’ve realised that I’m generally not inspired by the sorts of things that most people seem to be. Most of the music that I’ve written is much more a reflection of places than it is of people. I wrote a tune a few years ago called Lunar Blues for a quintet I was playing with at the time. I had been sitting up on the roof one night staring at the sky, and that song was a sort of musical portrait of the moon, something enormous looking over us but also incredibly calm and benign. That’s the kind of thing that inspires me to write music, and it doesn’t have to be something as ethereal as the moon, it can be something much more mundane, but I think that’s the kind of thing I want to be able to convey with the music that I write. If I was a painter I’d paint scenes of places rather than portraits.

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

Obviously there are always things that I want to improve about myself, things about my playing and my writing that I’m not happy with, but I think what I’ve found the hardest up to this point is all the other aspects of being a musician other than playing the music. It’s partly do to with confidence but also because I’m just not very interested in (or very good at) promoting myself and making opportunities for myself. Like every other musician, I’d rather be sat at my instrument playing music than dealing the business side of things and I think that has held me back sometimes.

Finding a place to belong within music has also been difficult sometimes. I’ve come from a Jazz background where there is a fairly clear blueprint to follow in terms of making a career (study at university, go to a lot of jam sessions, form a group playing your own music, hopefully be in demand as a sideman) obviously that doesn’t mean that it’s easy at all, but there is a set of ‘rules’ to follow there. I’m starting to feel less and less like I want to be part of that. Equally I’ve never wanted to have a career as a classical pianist (which also has its established conventions), so I’m somewhere in the middle which comes with its own challenges as well. But a lot of the music I listen to, people like Robert Wyatt and Simon Jeffes have made wonderful music without being firmly within one camp, so it is completely possible to find a home outside of the established conventions for making music.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Some of the music that I’m now playing with my trio I think is getting close to the sound I’ve been trying to create for a long time. And the other members of the trio have brought things to the music which have taken it in other directions (particularly rhythmically) which is great, and I think our three personalities are all being heard in the music we’re playing now. I’m also writing a lot of music at the moment which is less based around improvisation and uses a few instruments like cello and clarinet which I haven’t written for before. I need to work on the writing for that a bit longer, but hopefully that will start to all come together next year

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Generally I like to play simple tunes, with not too many changes. In the trio that I’m playing with at the moment we all love playing Monk tunes, so much so that we’ve actively tried to cut down the amount of Monk tunes that we play because we were getting to the point where almost half of what we were playing was his tunes. It’s the simplicity mixed with the weirdness that I think appeals to us, and his tunes take us to the kinds of places improvisationally that we seem to like to go to. Aside from Monk, I think that as a trio some of the slower Latin tunes work really well. We definitely play better at slower tempos as a trio. I’ve been playing with JJ, the bass player, for years and we’ve always preferred playing slow music to fast. Although in general I think it’s harder to play, it gives you more space to really listen and make choices, and it’s much harder to rely on just blowing through the changes when you’re at a slow tempo.

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

The Vortex, in Dalston, for me is the best venue in London. I’m still yet to put on a gig playing my own music there, but I’ve played there as a sideman and I think it’s the venue which relates best to the kind of music that I’d like to make. Audiences tend to be very supportive there and people rarely go there without the intention of keeping completely quiet and listening to the music. Probably the majority of the really great music that I’ve heard in London has been there. The Bull’s Head, in Barnes, has a similar atmosphere and I’ve enjoyed playing there a lot recently. Some of the audiences outside of the UK have been really supportive as well. I did some playing in Hamburg in 2016 and the audiences there were great, completely willing to spend their money to come and listen to us having never heard of us before, that really surprised me.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

One of the most memorable was very recently actually, at the Bull’s Head in Barnes. We played a tune called Come Sunday, written by Duke Ellington. It was one of those rare times where I felt like the three of us in the trio and the audience were completely connected. I can’t think of a better way of describing it than that. I’ve only had that feeling maybe four or five times in all the time I’ve been playing. Very occasionally everything just fits perfectly in the moment and that was one of those times. And as a result we played that tune very differently to how we had been up to that point.

The nature of improvised music means that it’s very rare that everything falls together perfectly in real time, and in a way that’s not the point. There’s a Miles Davis quote where he says something like ‘I can play music all night, but there will only ever be about 8 bars where I really nail it’, and I know what he means, although for me it’s about 8 bars a year. I think I’d been playing Jazz for at least four or five years before I ever played a tune and afterwards thought ‘that wasn’t bad actually’.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To find my own voice. And to get to the point where I feel like I’m playing and writing in the most genuine and honest way possible. I don’t think I necessarily want to have a long long career in music and be doing what I’m doing now in 20 years. If I can get to the point where I’ve written and performed some music that I really believe in then that’s probably enough for me. That could take five years, or the rest of my life, but that’s the goal.

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

I think probably the best advice I could give is very boring – practice the fundamentals. A lot of people (myself included) neglect simple things like having good time, feeling comfortable in difficult keys (and minor keys), ear training, etc. too early in their development and move on to really complex concepts before the fundamentals are really in place. I definitely made that mistake and I now practice mostly quite basic things along those lines. Also, to me there seems to be a bit too much focus on harmony and not enough focus on phrasing and rhythm in Jazz education, maybe that’s just a personal thing. It’s difficult sometimes early on to see the timeline of your playing. The balance between getting the fundamentals together and also trying to find your own sound can be hard. I think most Jazz players now need to have very solid foundations to built on, maybe that wasn’t the case in the past for people like Ornette Coleman, who made his own rules. But nowadays it seems to be pretty hard to get anywhere without good reading, ability to play in different time signatures, ability to play modal tunes, etc. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but I think it is the way things are now.

Events

Rowan Hudson at The Jazz Room

We are delighted to welcome back young jazz pianist and composer Rowan Hudson with his ensemble

Tickets £12 in advance / £15 on the door

 

Hudson delivers a project full of cool jazz harmonies, pictorial sounds tinted with Delius-esque passages, and humorous textures. – review of Rowan Hudson’s debut album Passing Ships by ArtMuseLondon

Rowan Hudson is a pianist and composer working within Jazz and Minimalist music. Moving to London in mid-2011, he studied Jazz at Middlesex University and since then has formed several groups and played with some of London’s leading musicians as well as touring Germany and the UK.

His main creative outlet is his Passing Ships, a 5 piece group put together to perform his music. As well this Rowan leads his own Piano trio featuring JJ Stillwell (Bass) and Angus Bishop (Drums). He also plays in the 6 piece Jazz group Nattacackle and works as the pianist for the singer Richard Hadfield.

His debut album Passing Ships was released in spring 2019