Celebrating a quarter century of inventive music, Venezuelan-born pianist, composer and bandleader Edward Simon, who now resides in the Bay Area, releases the two-disc career retrospective 25 Years on Ridgeway Records, affirming his status as a key figure in the wave of Latin American musicians who’ve transformed jazz in recent decades. Featuring tracks drawn from 13 albums spanning more than two decades, the collection features Simon’s closest collaborators, several jazz luminaries including tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, altoist David Binney, bassists Scott Colley, John Patitucci and Ben Street and drummers Brian Blade and Adam Cruz. Over the course of these 17 selections you’ll hear Simon performing in quartets (4), trios (4), quintets (2), sextets (2), septet, octet, nonet, and tentet configurations when including the four vocalists who appear on five of the tracks. They are Luciana Souza (2), Lucia Polito, Genevieve Artadi, and Gretchen Parlato. Other notable musicians who appear on various selections are bassists Larry Grenadier and Avishai Cohen, guitarist Adam Rogers, Eric Harland, and on one major piece Miguel Zenon, David Sanchez, Sean Jones, Robin Eubanks, and Warren Wolf, aside from many other contributors.
Simon took the opportunity at 50 to review his career and decided to assemble highlights of his work, rather than deliver a chronological sampling of different periods. The album also reflects Simon’s recently appointed role as associate artistic director of the Bay Area nonprofit Ridgeway Arts, an arts organization, label and presenter founded and run by Jeff Denson, the bassist, composer and California Jazz Conservatory’s dean of instruction. Simon says. “And I realized that a lot of great music went largely unnoticed. It was released on indie labels with no publicity, or small European labels with no presence in the U.S. I wanted to get these recordings back on the radar and into listeners’ ears. I wanted to re-present it in a celebratory spirit.”
Consequently, and due in part to some label rights restrictions, there are no examples of his formative sideman work with Bobby Watson, Terrence Blanchard or Greg Osby, and some of the music he recorded as a leader couldn’t be included. But Simon vividly captures a creative artist wrestling with his influences, honing his voice, and finding an utterly personal synthesis of Pan-American styles, beginning with the first disc where award-winning jazz journalist Ted Panken describes Simon’s style as “early-career masterworks of jazz polylingualism.” Simon echoes, “We were really exploring ideas of bringing together the traditions that I love. I grew up playing Latin American music, the genres under that large umbrella. They’re traditions I continue to explore and love, particularly the rhythms but also the song forms that come with them. Those early albums capture that exploration, which is wrapped up with the classical music element that I really love and went to school for, the desire and aspiration for structural clarity in composition and arrangement and the playing itself.”
The wide span begins with “Ericka,” a lovely, flowing piece from his widely influential 1998 album La Bikina. His bright piano lines piece call to mind Keith Jarrett, a beacon for jazz players deeply engaged with classical music. By opening with a piece written by his older brother, percussionist Marlon Simon, he seems to be making a clear statement that 25 Years isn’t only about him. Tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, altoist David Binney, bassist Ben Street and drummer Adam Cruz, all improvisers and still some of his closest collaborators play on that track. “Govinda” (from Oceanos) is marked by colorful guitar tones of Adam Rogers and wordless vocals of Souza which blends beautifully with Binney’s alto as Blade and Colley anchor the sensitive rhythm section. “Fiesta” is a trio piece bolstered by percolating percussion while the calm “Simplicity,” both involved bassist Cohen and drummer Cruz and are drawn from the album Simplicitas..
The extended exploration of “Pathless Path” from 2013’s Trio Live In New York at Jazz Standard captures his celebrated trio with Blade and bass maestro John Patitucci giving a master class in creating form out of freedom while relentlessly building tension over more than a dozen simmering minutes. Blade and Patitucci, of course, along with pianist Danilo Perez, are Wayne Shorter’s long-standing rhythm mates, considered by many the best in the art form. “Pere,” an elaborate melody from 2001’s Afinidad features a quartet with Binney, bassist Scott Colley and the extraordinary drum tandem of Brian Blade and Cruz on percussion and steel drum. Disc One ends with the meandering, ever twisting “Impossible Question,” from the album Oceanos rendered by a nonet including vocalist Souza, the Afinidad quartet augmented by Rogers, trumpeter Shane Endsley, and trombonists Jesse Newman and Alan Ferber.
The second disc concentrates more on Simon’s work as an arranger and orchestrator. With the support of three grants from Chamber Music America’s Doris Duke Charitable Foundation program for jazz composers he’s increasingly investigated expanded instrumentation, like on “Uninvited Thoughts”(a tentet) from his critically hailed 2018 album Sorrows and Triumphs. Featuring the Afinidad quartet (Binney, Blade and Colley) plus percussionist Luis Quintero and the Imani Winds, it’s an elegantly constructed piece marked by a lively melody and balanced interplay between the two finely melded ensembles. Another intriguing extended piece is “Barinas” (Venezuelan Suite) played a nonet featuring along with Turner on tenor an array of instruments that include, flute, bass clarinet, cuatro, harp, and maracas.
No group has provided more opportunities for experimentation in orchestral writing than the SFJAZZ Collective, which commissions original works for every member each season. His long tenure in the all-star band (formerly an octet and now a septet) is represented by “Venezuela Unidad” from Live at SFJAZZ Center 2017: Original Compositions & the Music of Ornette Coleman, Stevie Wonder and Thelonious Monk. A passionate protest over the ongoing humanitarian disaster that has beset Venezuela for more than a decade, it’s a rich mixture of shifting meters and tempos performed by Zenon. Sanchez, Jones, and Eubanks with a rhythm section of bassist Matt Peniman, drummer Obed Calvaire, along with Simon and vibraphonist Warren Wolf.
The creative journey that unfolds in the expansive 25 Years reveals an ascending trajectory of a culture-bridging/genre melding artist. Simon’s music is highly original and expertly crafted, drawing on his Pan-American roots, classical music, and both improvisational and traditional jazz rooted in Blakey’s hard and post-bop. It’s beautifully satisfying, making for many repeat listens.
- Jim Hynes
More on the Artist
At this point Simon has spent far more of his life in the United States than his homeland, but Venezuela still provides the life-sustaining essence of his music. He grew up in a household filled with music. His father hailed from Curaçao in the Dutch West Indies, and he instilled a love of music in his sons, percussionist Marlon Simon, trumpeter Michael Simon and Edward. The brothers performed music for dancing at local fiestas and events, tapping into an array of rhythms from Venezuela and beyond (they last reunited for a performance together in 2010 as Simon, Simon & Simon).
Simon was serious enough about the piano that at the age of 15 he left Venezuela and moved by himself to Pennsylvania to enroll at the Philadelphia Performing Arts School, a now-defunct private academy. He continued his classical studies, but he also discovered jazz, and eventually connected with Philly masters like bassist Charles Fambrough and guitarist Kevin Eubanks, who encouraged him to move to New York. Landing in Manhattan in 1988 at the age of 19 he quickly established himself as an essential new voice. A five-year stint with the great altoist Bobby Watson followed a nine-year run with trumpeter Terence Blanchard (who had both thrived in the hard-bop academy of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers) firmly established Simon as one of his generation’s leading accompanists. All the while he was looking to combine his growing authority as a straight ahead jazz player with his love of Latin American idioms, ambitions that put him at the center of a brilliant wave of fellow South American artists who had also recently arrived in New York that included Gonzalo Rubalcaba (Cuba), Danilo Perez (Panama), and David Sanchez (Puerto Rico). His developed overlapped with Connecticut pianist Brad Mehldau, once a sideman with Sanchez.
For more insights from Ted Panken’s amazing liners and quotes from Zenon, Binney, Patitucci and others visit Www.edwardsimon.com/25Years to download.