Gwilym Simcock has perfect pitch, was improvising by age 10, graduated from London's illustrious Royal Academy of Music (the same school as Elton John and Annie Lennox), and has played packed recital halls the world over. Oh, and did we mention he also bears a striking resemblance to comedian Will Arnett? But even with all that going for him the 32-year-old Welsh jazz pianist admits, "It does feel sometimes that America is an impenetrable jazz fortress. To be completely honest it's been a challenge to organize concerts in the U.S.," he says. "It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario in that you need gigs to gain a reputation, but a reputation to even be considered for gigs." Luckily, Simcock's reputation precedes him.
As a boy Simcock showed an early musical appreciation. "I was brought up with my dad sitting at the piano and improvising, often on simple melodies with very rich harmonies underneath," he says.
Simcock's father was a church organist with a particular fondness for Russian classical music. And at his side, little Gwilym was a clever student. "Due to this, I also took it for granted that you can just sit down at the piano and make things up without needing any music in front of you," he adds. That early introduction to off-the-cuff performance would prove to be Simcock's calling card — no two performances of his are alike. In fact, in grade school at Manchester's distinguished Chetham's School for Music, Simcock often got in trouble for rehearsing without sheet music.
But years of playing pretend developed him into a multi-talented artist whose latest album, 2011's Good Days At Schloss Elmau, earned a nod in Mojo magazine's Top 50 albums of the year. Spoleto guests will hear songs from Good Days, including personal favorite "Wake Up Call," an anxious beauty of a tune with Simcock racing through multiple scales, in addition to a few new songs.
"Putting together a program is like putting together a football — sorry — soccer team," he says. "You can't just throw in a whole load of new ones all at once as they almost certainly won't gel." With that in mind he laces his performances with conversation, communicating with his audience throughout the show.
"I think this is hugely important, as each piece I write is a story, and sometimes giving people an insight into what that story is all about can make the listening experience a much more fulfilling one," he says. "When you play an instrument (as opposed to singing), the challenge is to make that instrument your 'voice,' to be at one with it. That for me is what the purpose of practice is, to become so fluid at one's instrument that when it comes to performing you can convey what is in your heart and mind without any barriers."
That's clearly the case. Search Simcock on YouTube and you'll be rewarded with myriad videos of riveting performances. Often his lips silently move as if talking out each note while his fingers race across the ivories producing an entirely new jazz sound.
"When I was younger, the idea of playing a jazz concert in America would have been a daunting one, but now I'm a little bit older and hopefully wiser, and I feel comfortable enough in my own skin to be able to just be really excited to play to a whole new audience," Simcock says about his Spoleto show, his first solo performance in America. Given his prodigious talent, the only thing Simcock has to fear is his show selling out.