Interview with Edward Simon: The heart provides the feeling: Video

- in INTERVIEWS, VIDEOS

Jazz interview with jazz pianist Edward Simon. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Edward Simon: – I was born and raised in an oil town called Punta Cardón, in the Paraguaná peninsula of Venezuela. I grew up in a musical family of four and was surrounded by music. My father was a music lover who liked to play the guitar and sing boleros. He not only introduced all his children to music but supported our music studies and careers. Music is very much a part of people’s lives in Venezuela. My brothers and I formed a band called Nuestro Grupo and played at weddings, parties and festivities of all sorts.

JBN: – What got you interested in picking up the your musical instrument?

ES: – My sister, who is older than me, was already playing piano and was taking piano lessons so there was already a piano at the house. Initially, I was attracted to the electric organ and played both instruments for a while. Though I continued to have an interest in electronic instruments I knew I wanted to make the piano my main focus.

JBN: – What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today?

ES: – I’ve had many great teachers and I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to come into contact with them. My father was my very first teacher. Later, at age 10, when I moved to the US for the first time, I took classical piano lessons from a local teacher in Norman, Oklahoma who taught me how to read music. Susan Starr, my teacher at University of Arts -then called College of Performing Arts, gave me the foundation of classical training. She was a very demanding teacher who came from the old classical school. Mark Valenti, my first jazz teacher, introduced me to a lot of the great jazz pianists and taught me the basis of jazz improvisation theory. Later, when I was at Manhattan School of Music, I studied briefly with Harold Danko.  One of the greatest teachers I had was the infamous Sophia Rosoff. Sophia was a very unique teacher, she knew how to bring the best out of you. In her own words: “I don’t teach,” said Rosoff. “I explore. I clear the tracks so the feeling the student has for the music can emerge.”

JBN: – What made you choose the your musical instrument?

ES: – I think I chose the piano because of all the possibilities it offers. You can play chords, bass lines, melody and rhythm. It is the most complete musical instruments. However, I’ve always loved percussion and used to like playing timbales in my early days. I also played trombone in middle school. Until this day I wish I had a drum set at home. The piano has also served my interest in composition well.

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

ES: – I don’t believe I have done anything intentional to develop my sound other than follow my voice and study the traditions that have interested me which are Latin music, jazz improvisation and classical music. I grew up playing Latin American music, popular styles from all over the Caribbean such as: son, mambo, merengue, cúmbia, bolero, etc…, so this was my first musical language. When I heard jazz for the first time, I knew that was something I wanted to do. I loved the freedom it offered, the harmonic complexity and the degree of sophistication to which one could take improvisation. For years, I devoted I lot of time to the study of this tradition, focusing almost exclusively on it. During this period I was playing with bands such as Bobby Watson and Horizon. Later, once I felt I could communicate using the jazz language, I began to figure out how to combine both traditions, jazz and Latin music, a process which took some time. I would say one of the best things you can do to develop your sound is to compose. Composition can really be an aid in developing one’s sound. Compositions are vehicles for improvisation and if you want to play a certain way, you need play tunes which lend themselves for that type of playing.

JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

ES: – Because my practice time is more limited these days, my practice routines have more to do with ways to maintain my technical proficiency. For piano technique, there are plenty of books on technique that one could use, but to me classical music repertoire is possibly the best resource for developing one’s technique. I’m always playing and studying J.S. Bach.  I feel that his music should be the bread and butter of every pianist.  As for rhythm, growing up playing Latin music has been a great preparation for me in terms of having a strong rhythmic foundation. I would recommend people to learn how to play a percussion instrument, drum set, congas or pandeiro. Learning about the concept of clave and playing in a Latin band can be a very educational experience for any musician looking to strengthen their rhythmic sense. When learning a piece of music, an exercise I often recommend is to tap or sing the rhythms to your part while maintaining the “clave” elsewhere in the body, in the left hand for example.

JBN: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?

ES: – I would say I’m a romantic when it comes to harmony. I love the harmonic movements of the romanticism.

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

ES: – Every artist needs to find the balance between these two for him or herself, as both are important in art. If you can touch your own heart and open up to your own humanness, you can touch the hearts of people through music. However, a piece of music that is all heart and no intellect will not have the same impact as one which strikes a balance between them. The mind allows you to express or articulate the feeling in a more direct or precise way. The heart provides the feeling while the mind gives it cohesiveness, a form that can be transmittable. As artists we must continually learn to open up to ourselves and develop our craft.

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

ES: – I shall never forget when I made my first album (Beauty Within). It was one of the most nerve recking experiences of my life. The album featured Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez and Anthony Jackson. We were in the midst of a take of “Mastery of All Situations”. As we were really getting into it, I turned over to look at Anthony who was playing the most amazing stuff while making the most unusual faces as he played. It looked as though a spasm of pain contorted his face. His look not only surprised me but scared me! It scared me so much I almost lost my place. I had to gather every bit of strength in me to not let it get to me and had to look away in order to be able to continue to play and finish the take.

JBN: – Which collaborations have been the most important experiences for you?

ES: – I feel as though most of my collaborations have come at a time in my life when they were most meaningful. I remember when first playing with Paquito D’Rivera, one of the most versatile musicians I’ve played with and one of the most wonderful band leaders to work for. He is a virtuoso player whose first priority is always to have a good time. I also remember when first playing with Greg Osby. Greg was the first person I recorded an album with (Mind Games -JMT) and someone who really opened my mind up to new possibilities. Currently, my collaborations with the members of the SFJAZZ Collective have been very significant. Working with a team of great players and composers who are at the top of their game has been both inspiring and incredibly satisfying.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

ES: – Hmm, that’s difficult question. I would say the best we can do is expose them to the music early on so that they grow up familiar with it. If they have not grown up listening to it then perhaps a good strategy can be let them first play and enjoy the music that is most relevant to them, music of their time, and then show them where that music came from.

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

ES: – I don’t know exactly what Coltrane meant when he said that. As a Buddhist practitioner I don’t believe there is such a thing as a soul or spirit, if we are to define that as a being or entity that continues on after death. The whole idea of a self is a concept created by our own minds. Music is an expression of who you are here and now, of your life experiences and in that sense it is intimately connected to you as the creative artist. As for the meaning of life, that is a larger question. I don’t know if there is any intrinsic meaning in life itself, I think it can mean something different to each of us. However, I believe we are here to evolve and that our goal in life is to awaken, to become realized. To know, on an experiential level, that we are all part of one Universal Consciousness.

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

ES: – These days there appears to be a vast disconnect between the market of music and music itself. It seems to me that this separation is worst than ever before. If there was a way to make those two more equitable, I would change that. It would be great live in an overall more equitable society, one were artists were valued and respected much the same as other professionals and to assure that music was in all schools.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

ES: – These days I listen mostly to classical music. I like listening to contemporary classical music composers such as Steve Reich, John Adam and others. I like listening to Afro-Caribbean folkloric music, bands like Rumbatá, Los Muñéquitos de Matanzas and Adonis and Osaín del Monte, to name a few of the Afro-Cuban bands. I also try to stay abreast of what the younger generation is doing, young pianists like Aaron Parks, Tigran Hamasyan, David Virelles, Gerold Clayton and Kristjan Randalu. I also listen to my peers.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

ES: – I would probably want to go back to the time of J.S. Bach and see how it was possible that he wrote so much music and such beautiful music in a relatively short life span.

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

ES: – How do you maintain your curiosity alive?

JBN: – With Jazz and Blues!!!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Edward Simon | SFCM

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