Tuesday 12 July 2011

Geoff Simkins with Terry Seabrook and Paul Whitten, The Snowdrop, Lewes, 11th July

Brighton-based alto saxophonist Geoff Simkins was in his element last night - a small venue, an attentive audience and sensitive musicians to support him. It was the perfect opportunity to enjoy Geoff's music and reflect on the approach to improvisation that informs his teaching (there were several of Geoff's students in the audience, myself included).

Geoff's approach to approach to improvisation is consistent and purposeful. I'll try and summarise it like so:
  • The foundation of his flowing line is a long, even exhalation of breath  - the breath vibrates the reed and the sax keys select the notes
  • Each breath lasts maybe 10 or so seconds, long enough to develop a melodic idea across quite a by number of bars (depending on the tempo of the tune) and across sections of the tune too
  • Each pause for breath is an opportunity to take stock, adapt the idea or perhaps change tack in response to what is going on around him or a new thought
The way Geoff develops musical ideas is significant to his style. Rather than following the chords changes and letting them dictate changes in ideas, he holds on to an idea (e.g. a short musical phrase) and adapts it to the new surroundings as the chords change. This might mean playing the same phrase but changing the pitch, sometimes fitting in with then new chord, sometimes deliberately at odds but ultimately seeking a resolution. The relationship between the notes is sometimes dictated by reason (actually, that idea will work in this context too) or art (if I play these notes against this chord it's going to sound quite unusual). Each breath is a thread that holds the ideas together.

It's clear that Geoff does not always know where a phrase it going to end up before he pauses for breath. Occasionally it sounds like he thinking his way out of the situation he finds himself in without losing the plot - solving a logic problem. Geoff rarely loses the plot in musical terms. He admitted to me that he occasionally runs out of ideas before he runs out of breath. This relationship between the length of the breath and the length of a line is an interesting one, worth investigating, even on guitar or piano.

This is pretty hard stuff and few people can do it like Geoff. It takes a lot of discipline to hang onto and develop those lines. It may be habit by now, but it takes a lot of practice too. I think it was Al Cohn who said: "If I don't practice for a day, I notice it; if I don't practice for two days, the other musicians notice it; if I don't practice for three days, the audience notices it." Geoff must be pretty disciplined in his practice regime. It's not just doing the things he does so well, it's all the bad habits he avoids - for example, using ideas sparingly and not wasting them by throwing them away too soon.

The vehicle for Geoff's improvisation is standard and modern jazz originals with interesting chord sequences - How Deep Is The Ocean, Donna Lee, Passport/Anthropology, Sophisticated Lady, Little, Willie Leaps, Cherokee, I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face, Beija Flor a variation on All The Things You Are.

Some of these tunes force obvious comparisons with alto players who have shared his approach. I know Paul Desmond's version of I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face. Desmond has a beautiful tone and a rhapsodic quality to his lines. Geoff's tone is harsher and he often leans on the altered, non-diatonic notes which sometimes gives his playing a sardonic quality. He's perhaps closer to Lee Konitz but, to my ear, Konitz has a slightly mournful, elegiac quality. The truth is that it's unfair to label Geoff a "cool school" or Konitz/Desmond soundalike. Geoff's voice is is his own.

This was of course an ensemble performance and Terry Seabrook accompanied very sensitively and tastefully. The volume was just right and he kept to a path that complemented Geoff - mixing chords and lines, doing that six over four thing that pianists love. Likewise, Paul Whitten played very sensitively. His tone is sweet and woody - not too much bass or treble. I really like Paul's solo style. Unlike Geoff's, his lines are more like those you would want to sing. Where Geoff would quote a tune (Moondance for example), he will then play about with it. Paul just carries a nice melody without messing with it. I like that approach too.

I also liked the way they ended a few of the tunes. You could hear Geoff's final note dying away, Paul would bow a note in harmony, Geoff's note would reduce to a whisper then disappear.

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