Review: Gwilym Simcock and Yuri Goloubev at St John the Evangelist, Oxford

Yuri Goloubev and Gwilym Simcock
Photo Credit: Alyn Shipton


Gwilym Simcock and Yuri Goloubev
(12th February 2014. St John the Evangelist. Review by Alyn Shipton)


The piano and bass duo has an honourable history in jazz, going back to Ellington and Blanton in 1939, and then — from the era when New York cabaret laws only allowed two-in-a-bar — taken forward in the 70s and 80s by the regulars at Bradleys bar on University Place, such as Roger Kellaway and Red Mitchell, or Cedar Walton and David Williams. It is, however, a format that has somewhat fallen out of favour recently, and so it is great news that Gwilym Simcock and the Italian-based Muscovite Yuri Goloubev have chosen to revive the tradition.

Their new album “Reverie at Schloss Elmau” will no doubt be reviewed on this site shortly, but following Gwilym’s recent return to playing after a hand injury, this Oxford concert was one of a tiny number of live UK duo dates before the two of them embark on an Italian tour next month. On record, the balance between bass and piano is excellent, and some of the playing exquisitely delicate, by turns with passages of more robust dialogue. So this was a chance to hear it transferred to a concert setting.

Gwilym is more experienced than most in playing chamber jazz in large acoustic spaces, following his years with Acoustic Triangle, using the reverberation of cathedrals and parish churches across Britain as an integral ingredient in the music. So how would the duo fare in St John’s, a lofty Victorian gothic church whose partially carpeted interior and warm stonework creates the illusion of a much drier acoustic than is actually the case?

Initially, the piano — St Stephen’s House’s magnificent concert Steinway —tended to drown the bass, despite Goloubev’s discreet amplification. For a number or two he sounded like mid-period Eddie Gomez, either a swarm of angrily buzzing bees that occluded the marvellous articulation of his pizzicato runs, or rather boomy lower range noise that was further muddied by the space around him. But as the set went on, each of them relaxed, playing slightly fewer notes and improvising less frantically, so that the space caressed their music and made it more effective. By the second half, they were on song. A slight repositioning of the bass during the interval to a more central position projected far better, and the balance became ideal.

Both musicians have a classical background, and this was particularly evident in Goloubev’s lovely singing arco tone. So few contemporary jazz bassists use the bow with any finesse — with the honourable exception of Christian McBride — so it was a delight to hear the instrument’s cello like tone and warm sonority on Gwilym’s composition “Flow”. Once in his new position, Goloubev’s rapid-fire pizzicato work was fully audible, and his fluent solo on his on “Non-Schumann Lied” was wittily underpinned by piano harmonies that echoed the 19th century song tradition. The alternating keys in Gwilym’s “Shades of Pleasure” assisted the pair’s musical dialogue, and when they dropped into a standard — an excellently paced version of “I Hear A Rhapsody” — it became a three-way conversation with the building: a long unaccompanied left hand piano passage using the full resonance of the nave.

By the time they wound up with the soaring arco melody of Gwilym’s “A Joy Forever”, which was followed by an elegantly constructed piano solo that built up in complexity over a perfectly constructed bassline, they were playing even more sparingly and more beautifully. The encores, including a spiky melody over a full and complex left hand ostinato inspired by Samuel Barber’s “Excursions”, were dazzling, and left the audience wanting more. So in the end, a form that has mainly flourished in recording studios and small bars proved conclusively that in such expert hands it can make the transition to large scale auditoria, without losing the intimacy and nuance of real musical conversation.

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