Jazz pianist Gwilym Simcock’s Ann Arbor debut was as thrilling as it was surprising. I doubt that many in the audience had heard of Simcock before that concert six years ago, even though he was already well known in Europe, and it was difficult to know what to expect. As soon as he began to play, however, it became obvious that he was a very interesting pianist with an impressive command of his instrument and a well-developed personal style. While harmonically quite modern, he had an emotional sense of melody that was almost romantic in its roots, and his shifting patterns and deep sense of form drew one into the musical worlds he created. It was also obvious that he was a European player who approached jazz in his own way, with no interest in imitating American models. It was one of my favorite performances of the year.

The commercial distinction between jazz and classical music–as well as the social divide between performance worlds–has often blurred the intimate relationship between the two forms. Many jazz musicians start out playing the classics and maintain an interest in all kinds of music. This is particularly true of pianists–the virtuoso musical explorations of the finest jazz pianists of earlier generations, such as Earl Hines or Art Tatum, reveal their grounding in the classics. The training of jazz musicians has changed radically in recent decades due to the development of a complex network of jazz summer camps and school and university programs that have largely replaced the traditional apprenticeships in established band and jam sessions. But most younger musicians have solid classical foundations and can play in any context.

Born in a very small town in Wales, Simcock learned to play piano and French horn at a young age and then continued his musical education in conservatories in Manchester and London. Along the way, he fell for jazz and developed improvisatory skills as well. His playing was clearly influenced by one of his teachers, the well-known British jazz pianist John Taylor; in later years, they performed together on the same bill and even as a duo.

Simcock’s early training is reflected in his approach to improvisation. He integrates well into group playing–from duos to symphonic contexts–but pulls out all the stops in solo concerts. His style is rhapsodic, virtuosic, and melodically focused but harmonically rich in a way that recalls players such as Keith Jarrett, with evident nods to classical forms. Without bass and drums, he maintains rhythmic diversity while exploring all corners of a song, concentrating on his own compositions rather than surveying standards and well-known jazz tunes.

Gwylim Simcock returns to town on June 24 to play at the Kerrytown Concert House.