Pianist Edward Simon has been with the SFJAZZ Collective for almost ten years. He’s contributed original compositions to their playlist, and speaks excitedly about playing the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Miles in the current performance season.
Simon (who leads two other ensembles) has more news: a CD that has just been released called “Sorrows and Triumphs.” It features the lovely intertwining complexity of Imani Winds, comprised of classical woodwind musicians. Combined with the sensitivity and emotional depth of Simon on piano, this album blends fresh colors on a wide and inviting canvas. Some of the top tracks here include a fantasy of mesmerizing vocals threading through a dizzying rhythm (“Triumph”) and the incredibly soothing “Chant.”
Why do you feel piano is an extension of your self-expression?
I can’t say exactly why I was attracted to the piano as a musical instrument. I first started on the organ before I moved to the piano. My sister was already playing it so there was already one at the house.
Perhaps it was something to do with my interest in composition. The piano is one of the most complete musical instruments and the preferred tool for most composers. It can function as a melodic, harmonic and rhythmic instrument all at one.
Why were you keen on becoming a member of the SFJAZZ Collective?
When Renee Rosnes, the original pianist, decided to leave, I was invited to join. My interests in jazz performance, composing and arranging seemed to align well with the ensemble’s mission, so I decided to become part of the ensemble. Additionally, I already knew and/or had played with many of the Collective members at the time, so it seemed a like a good fit.
What is it about your approach to jazz that made it so natural to come on board?
I would say that it is my versatility, eclectic interests and sensibility for classical music. The Collective is a very special ensemble as it is formed by eight leaders, each with a unique and strong artistic vision. As the members change so does the music.
Because the players/composers in the ensemble have very different writing styles, it requires players with a specialized set of skills and knowledge. Particularly when it comes to the rhythm section, it is important to be informed in various musical styles and traditions: straight-ahead, funk, classical, Brazilian and various styles from the Caribbean and South America. These days about half of the band is from the Caribbean, so in recent times stylistically the music has leaned heavily on those musical traditions, with an emphasis on Afro-Caribbean.
What do you enjoy most about the instrumental makeup of the Collective?
I love the fact that we have vibes. This instrument, when combined with other instruments, offers numerous color possibilities. The ensemble is also unique: it is neither a small jazz ensemble nor a big band, yet it can function as either one.
Since joining the Collective in 2010, what were some of the most memorable performances?
During the inauguration of the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco there was a series of performances taking place over several days. Chick Corea was among the special guest artists. We had the opportunity to perform my arrangement of “Spain” with him. I am a huge fan of Chick, and being on stage with him was truly a memorable experience.
What do you most want people to know about SFJAZZ?
Jazz is one of the most unique and beautiful things the United States has to offer to the world. SFJAZZ is an organization that is committed to this art form. It does this through presenting music all year round, educational programs honoring great masters with a life achievement award, and the SFJAZZ Collective.
What original compositions of yours will the Collective play this year?
My original composition for the current season is “Insight.”
How do you feel about bringing the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim to life this season along with music by/associated with Miles Davis?
I’m particularly excited about working with the music of Jobim because he is the first Latin American composer whose music we’ve featured. I think Jobim has been a very complementary choice for the Collective in that it brings balance to our repertoire. I love his composition “Zingaro” (aka “Portrait in Black and White”). While Miles Davis and Jobim are very different artists, I think what they have in common is their ability to say more with fewer notes. I love Miles’ “All Blues.”
Do you perform with other ensembles also? How do you divide your time and attentions?
Yes, I lead my trio, Ensemble Venezuela, and Afinidad, a quartet I co-lead with David Binney. I usually spend about two months during the summer writing and preparing for the Collective’s season which consists of two tours: one in the fall, which includes a residency at the SFJAZZ Center, and a second tour in the spring.
Your newest album, “Sorrows and Triumphs” – what was the biggest challenge?
Getting all those people together in the same place at the same time! The second biggest challenge is funding a production of that size.
Favorite track on this CD?
Hmmm, that’s a hard one. I like different tracks for different reasons. I would say “Uninvited Thoughts” because you get to hear what Imani Winds can do. I think Gretchen sounds beautiful on the album, particularly on “Chant.”
What are the most interesting developments in jazz today?
The music is continually evolving rhythmically and being informed by traditions from other parts of the world.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Edward Simon and the SFJAZZ Collective.
(c) Debbie Burke 2019