Review - String Quartet Festival: Gwilym Simcock Trio with the Brodowski Quartet at the Pizza Express Jazz Club,

Brodowski String Quartet

String Quartet Festival: Gwilym Simcock Trio with the Brodowski Quartet
(Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean Street, 5 April 2014. Review by Andy Boeckstaens)

Jazz and classical music can be uneasy, even unruly bedfellows. When composer/pianist Gwilym Simcock asserted recently, in reference to his new recording with the City of London Sinfonia (Instrumation, ACT 9564-2) that he feels most comfortable with music “in that space between classical and jazz” it led to the expectation of something that was coming from a particular space, not to be assessed as a hybrid with the different frames of reference one may want to apply separately to jazz or classical music, but very much on its own terms.

From the outset of  this appearance of Simcock’s trio alongside the Brodowski Quartet - on the penultimate night of the String Quartet Festival curated by Frank Griffith, Simcock swayed back and forth as he played, and occasionally made sweeping gestures to conduct Dunja Lavrova and Catrin Morgan (violins), Amy Stanford (viola) and Ashok Klouda (‘cello).

The rich tone and dexterity of bassist Yuri Goloubev were prominent throughout the evening, and he delivered a profound solo on Message after a lovely, gentle beginning from the string quartet. Martin France - shorn of his flowing locks - was also impressive, and frequently used his hands on the drums when a softer sound than sticks or brushes was required. Passionate as ever, Simcock grinned with pleasure and grimaced with exertion as he raised himself off his stool during the more ecstatic passages, sometimes reaching in to pluck or strum the strings.

Antics was commissioned for the 2012 City of London Festival, to be performed (serially) on 50 golden upright pianos around the City. Simcock eloquently explained that it was originally designed “for crap pianos”, and hoped that its energetic Latin-inflected rhythm would disrupt the annoying chatter from a small group of people near the front. It did; and also swamped the strings. A highlight was Tawel Nawr (Quiet Now) . During the opening pieces, the quartet worked as a homogenous unit and featured no-one individually; here, we had short solos for violin and ‘cello. Ironically, this was the only time that the quartet and trio really gelled, in a way that reminded me of the beautiful things that Ron Carter recorded around 1980.

Barber Blues – a rhythmic, 16-bar tune with a left-hand ostinato and contrapuntal lines, dedicated to Samuel Barber - ended the 55-minute set by the trio and string quartet with a stylish flourish.

Did it work? Not for me. The sound was attractive, and of course it was well played. The snag was nothing to do with any jazz/classical divide. It was caused by the frustration – save for a few inspired moments – that the trio and the quartet have not properly gelled yet, and that they did not really interact. For this kind of thing to succeed, the writing has to allow for complete integration, and the participants need time to rehearse, understand each other, and become truly immersed in the music. Perhaps a process like that needs more time.

I found the second set, by the Simcock/Goloubev/France trio, more satisfying. During Kenny Wheeler’s Everybody’s Song But My Own, the players at last seemed relaxed and confident. Goloubev’s skilful arco technique was featured on the sombre, bass-led A Joy Forever, which was followed by a bustling, complex Mr Bricolage.

Simcock said “Harmony changes your emotions in a way that is unquantifiable....I love harmony”, and Shades of Pleasure – based on two harmonic centres – typified his singular conception. As a performing unit, the trio was in its pomp for Irving Berlin’s How Deep Is the Ocean? – when all three musicians took majestic solos – and Dave Brubeck’s rhapsodic, lightly swinging classic In Your Own Sweet Way brought to a close an imperfect, enjoyable evening that showcased two sides of one of the brightest stars on the European scene.

An interview with Frank Griffith provides background information on the String Quartet Festival.

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