Sunday, April 22, 2018

Edward Simon’s Album of Interleaved Suites

Edward Simon (photograph by Scott Chernis, courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz)

This past Friday, Sunnyside Records released the latest album led by Venezuelan-born jazz pianist Edward Simon. The title of the album is Sorrows and Triumphs, which is also the title of a three-movement suite that is performed. The movements of this suite interleave with those of a second suite, entitled House of Numbers. The album also includes an opening track, “Incessant Desires,” which is not part of either of these two suites.

Simon plays both piano and electric keyboards along with the other members of his Afinidad quartet, consisting of David Binney on alto saxophone, Scott Colley on bass, and Brian Blade on drums. In the performance of the Sorrows and Triumphs suite, the quartet is joined by vocalist Gretchen Parlato, guitarist Adam Rogers, and Rogerio Boccato providing additional percussion. Similarly, percussion is provided by Luis Quintero for House of Numbers; but what makes this suite interesting is the addition of Imani Winds, the quintet consisting of Valerie Coleman (flute), Toyin Spellman (oboe), Monica Ellis (bassoon), Mark Dover (clarinet), and Jeff Scott (horn). This ensemble is joined by Parlato for the “Chant” movement of the suite.

The Sorrows and Triumphs suite was inspired by Simon’s study and practice of Buddhism. One gets some sense of orientation from the titles of the three movements:
  1. Equanimity
  2. Rebirth
  3. Triumph
Simon wrote his own lyrics for “Triumphs;” and those for “Rebirth” were written by Parlato, who has also studied Buddhism. “Equanimity” is a vocalise.

I have to confess that this suite left me more than a little skeptical. Part of the issue is that I have never really been particularly moved by the sound of Parlato’s voice. She seems to affect a deliberate shallowness of tone that does not go down very well with me. This is a pity, because her sense of pitch is solid; and that solidity is necessary to keep up with Simon’s imaginative melodic contours. Similarly, I was first exposed to Buddhism through John Cage, from whom I leaned that it is best to keep practice to oneself.

House of Numbers, on the other hand, is an appealing exercise in bringing a classical wind quintet into an improvisatory setting. Each of the suite’s four movements is based on a different number: 3, 4, 5, and 7. Those numbers are interpreted through both sequences, through rhythm and phrase structure, and simultaneities, through chords. Imani has experience with jazz, so they took to improvising within this framework along with Afinidad the way a duck takes to water. Each of the suite’s movements has its own brand of upbeat energy, and I must confess that I would have been happier had those movements not been interrupted by the movements of Sorrows and Triumphs.

Here in San Francisco Simon was one of the artists selected to perform in A Heartfelt Gala, the concert organized in honor of Ruth Felt, founder and President Emeritus of San Francisco Performances (SFP). He performed in a trio with SFP Jazz Artist-in-Residence Sean Jones on trumpet and Marcus Shelby on bass; and the offerings were all straight-ahead jazz. The Sorrows and Triumphs album leads the attentive jazz listener along more circuitous paths, some of which have more engaging features than others.

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