The upstairs space of the Flute and Tankard was stretched to full capacity last Tuesday, hosting a band from out of town. Titled the Geoff Simkins Quartet, it featured Brighton-based saxophonist and jazz educator Simkins on alto, Tom Ollendorff on guitar, Will Sachs on double bass, and Jay Davis on drums. The London-based rhythm section in particular were notably young, all current students or recent graduates of jazz courses at conservatoires.
The gig consisted of a dozen or so well-chosen standards, varying in audience-familiarity as well as tempo and style. Whilst relatively conventional in the choice of music, all traditional jazz, the band were innovative in their approach to the tunes. Song structures were unconventional, with Simkins beginning a tune with a lengthy solo, or the band breaking off for a chorus to leave him improvising unaccompanied. The overall technical skill of the band was impressive, and conveyed in tunes such as the lesser-known Lennie Tristano tune ‘Lennie Bird’, where the group played the extremely upbeat head in unison. The musicians’ talent was also displayed through their holistic improvisatory approach to not only the tune but also the overall soundscape and texture. This was heard in tunes like Charlie Haden’s ‘Waltz For Ruth’ and Steve Swallow’s ‘Falling Grace’, where the band experimented with different combinations of instruments.
There were moments of pure beauty, such as in the re-interpreted Chopin’s ‘Prelude No.1’ where the musicians came together with the quiet intensity of a classical chamber group. The mood of the performance was altogether light and easy-going however, and at some points, humorous. Both Simkins and Ollendorff often interwove various quotations from other jazz and pop tunes into their solos. Simkins even announced the final tune ‘Chi Chi’ with a favourite Simpsons quote: ‘The blues isn’t about feeling better. It’s about making other people worse...’
Geoff has recently released a new trio album, In a Quiet Way, with pianist Nikki Iles and bass player Dave Green.
Echo How did you all meet?
Tom Ollendorff I was studying with Geoff at college. That’s how I know him. Will and Jay, the bass player and drummer on the gig, are both studying or have studied at the Royal Academy in London. They’re both busy musicians, so we met through a few sessions and gigs I was booked on. Geoff and I had this gig, and he said to me, ‘Do you want to sort out the bass player and drummer.’ I’m doing a lot of gigs with those guys at the moment, and the rest is history.
Geoff Simkins I think it’s important to make the point about inter-generational playing. Because
certainly people I’ve taught, if there is a chance of a gig, or giving people a gig, I think it’s important to do that. Ex-pupils that I now play with include pianist Joe Webb, Tom, bassist Conor Chaplin and others in London. And I know other musicians do that of my generation. Stan Sulzmann is great at doing that, at encouraging younger players. And I think it’s very important to swap ideas, to get that experience of playing together. To pass the baton on.
E Could you sense the age gap when you were playing?
GS I couldn’t. The audience might have been able to. I’m just interested in improvising, and I don’t think that’s style-specific. Which is probably why I like playing with Tom, Joe, and other people. I think that they have a sort of openness to playing, which for me is critical.
E That which comes from being young?
GS That which comes from being open to improvising, I think. And whether I’m seen as old-fashioned, I really don’t care. But I do what I do, and if people enjoy what I do and they feel that they can contribute and I can contribute to them, then that’s all that matters.
E How about you Tom?
TO The only generation gap is that you can’t sound as good as Geoff unless you’re as old as Geoff, because he’s been playing for so much longer. It’s such an important thing to play with people who are on such a different level to you in terms of the way they improvise and their musicality. There are always exceptions, because there’s a lot of young musicians who when you play with them, it’s a roast. But playing with someone like Geoff, it’s such a privilege because he’s on such a high level in terms of the jazz tradition.
GS I think it’s good for audiences as well to see that. To see that people of very different ages,
experiences, and backgrounds can play together and make great music. And I hope that that will
encourage younger people to come and listen to the music. Because it can be off-putting for young people who are interested to come into a room which is full of people much older than them. It can be quite intimidating. And I think with the more inter-generational playing we get, the more likely it is those barriers will go.
E How did you decide on the repertoire for tonight’s gig?
GS Well there wasn’t much time for rehearsal. Because the four of us hadn’t played together before, Tom and I suggested some tunes that we thought we both might know, or that we thought we both might be able to learn. And that Will and Jay would be happy to play. And so we came up with a list of 12 or 14. Some quite unusual things, some more familiar things. We thought it would make a nice contrast, you know. Change of tempo, change of key. I think it worked very well.
E Who would you say your key shared influences are?
TO I wouldn’t know exactly. Certainly through studying with Geoff, particularly in terms of repertoire, the Tristano school. Studying with Geoff was something that opened my ears musically. We played some of those pieces this evening. I love learning some of the lines and contrafacts written over well-known standards. If I had to choose, probably all the greats, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, all of those. I suppose with different instrumentalists, you focus more on people who play your instrument.
GS I think for me, it’s a sort of philosophical approach to how we think about improvising. So the
musicians that I’ve studied quite closely over the years, it’s not so much recreating what they did, it’s about adopting an approach to playing and learning and studying, which they championed I think. And that’s not style-specific. Because many contemporary players have learnt from that way of thinking about improvising. That’s what I think is the link between me and them. I think that’s perhaps critical. I’ve always loved, from Frank Trumbauer to Benny Carter to Lester Young to Charlie Parker. To Eric Dolphy to whoever. To me, sometimes! That’s the history of the music I think.
E How often do you get a chance to play together?
GS Not very often. Partly because Tom’s doing lots of things and we don’t live in the same city. But whenever I get the chance, and someone asks you to bring a quartet, or we’d like a guitar player. For many many years I worked with the great Dave Cliff, we were very close friends, Dave sadly isn’t playing anymore. Its important to say there are other guitar players. They need to step up and say, yeah, we’re the next generation.
ECHO | Gail Tasker