For over two decades, Edward Simon has steadily built a reputation as both a deft, adaptive collaborator and a highly accomplished composer and bandleader in his own right. Raised in Venezuela, a student first of classical piano before gravitating to jazz, Simon now divides his efforts among a number of acclaimed, stylistically varied ensembles. Afinidad, his long-running collaboration with the saxophonist David Binney, incorporates Latin American, Brazilian, and pop influences; Ensemble Venezuela employs the folk traditions of Simon’s homeland. Among his honors are three CMA New Jazz Works commissions—the newest of which, House of Numbers, brings together Afinidad with the wind quintet Imani Winds—a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the piano chair in the all-star SFJAZZ Collective.
CMA spoke with Simon about the appeal of blending styles, genres, and traditions in his work; his philosophies around collaboration; and the ongoing challenge of making time for his many projects.
Chamber Music America: You recently came to New York to perform the Venezuelan Suite—a work that brings elements of Venezuelan folk music into a jazz setting. Can you speak a little on the folk music of Venezuela? How do those traditions interact with the jazz idiom in your work?
Edward Simon: With Gustavo Dudamel conducting the LA Philharmonic and other Venezuelans finding themselves in major orchestras around the world, today there is much talk about "El Sistema" and Venezuelan musicians, yet the music of Venezuela remains, at least to the general public, an undiscovered treasure. The Venezuelan waltzes of Antonio Lauro are considered standard repertoire for classical guitar, but very little is known about all the other genres of Venezuelan music. My Venezuelan Suite provides a very general overview of Venezuelan music by focusing on four of its main genres: joropo—our national dance—merengue, waltz, and gaita.
I like to collaborate with people who are not only exceptionally talented and skilled but who are willing to step beyond their comfort zone and offer their talents in service of a greater purpose."
Prior to the Venezuelan Suite, my dealings with Venezuelan music were more along the lines of adapting folk melodies to a jazz setting—treating them with jazz harmonies and improvisation. In Venezuelan Suite, I took head on the challenge of composing pieces based on specific genres of Venezuelan music. I took rhythms, grooves, and certain idiosyncrasies of each style and combined it with the jazz language and improvisation. I also combined some of the musical instruments most typically used in Venezuelan music—such as the cuatro, harp, and maracas—with those commonly found in a jazz setting.
CMA: You’ve also studied classical music, and have noted its continuing influence on your compositions. Your 2014 CMA commission, House of Numbers, bridges jazz and classical chamber music. What are the challenges involved? What do you hope to achieve?
ES: Classical and jazz musicians are like two different tribes. Though they have a lot in common, they are accustomed to thinking and functioning in different ways. I think of jazz musicians more like composers working in realtime, whereas classical musicians are masters of interpreting works mostly written by others. In jazz performance the lines between composer and interpreter and not always as clearly defined. And although there is more cross-pollination taking place today than ever before, we essentially continue to deal with two different musical traditions.
In House of Numbers, I think one of the challenges lies in integrating the two ensembles—my jazz quartet Afinidad and the classical quintet Imani Winds—in such a way that it results into a unified sound. My hope is that the ensemble will sound like one working unit and not necessarily as though one is supporting the other, though that can be alright at times. I also hope for the members of Imani Winds to feel like they are equally involved in the music-making process—that their voice as an ensemble, as well as their individual voices, are being represented.
CMA: You reference “simplicity and economy” as aesthetic goals—how do you stay true to these qualities in such complex settings?
ES: I think these can be accomplished in terms of the content of the compositions, by working with small ideas and committing to them. I also hope to write shorter pieces this time, as well as through-composed material that provides points of origination and destination for free group improvisation.
CMA: How did you assemble the ensemble for this (2014) commission? What qualities were you seeking in your collaborators?
ES: Because of our long history, working with Afinidad was a natural choice. All of us in Afinidad—David Binney, Scott Colley, Brian Blade, and I—have known each other and played together in various projects for many years now. We’ve developed a bond, a mutual understanding that took time to develop and that is very important to me. I like surrounding myself with player-composers—all of the members of Afinidad are also composers—I think because they seem to understand what the music needs in order to come across effectively. We also have common sensibilities and an affinity for classical and other forms of music—hence the name Afinidad, which translates to affinity.
I believe Imani Winds has this quality too, though they are coming at it from a different place. They certainly have a sound, an identity. I like to collaborate with people who are not only exceptionally talented and skilled but who are willing to step beyond their comfort zone and offer their talents in service of a greater purpose.
CMA: What is it about bringing together styles and genres that appeals to you?
ES: When you take the best that each has to offer to create something original, bringing styles together can be very rewarding. Much like what can happen when you bring together cuisines from different parts of the world, such as Thai and French for example. Philosophically speaking, it can help bring audiences of different backgrounds together. To me Latin Jazz is a good example. When done well, combining the complex rhythmic Latin American traditions with jazz harmony and interaction can result in a potent synergy, containing the best each has to offer. Drawing from those highly syncopated musical languages while improvising and interacting in a jazz way is what makes it really interesting to me.
CMA: Is there a single piece of advice you have for jazz artists hoping to reach wider audiences?
ES: I would say, continue to develop your voice as an artist. Learn your craft, continually study the tradition and other forms of music. Remain open to a wide range of influences. The more true you are to yourself, the more people will want to hear what you have to say.
CMA: Do you have any advice for those struggling to find a balance between the creative process and the growing amount of administrative work required of musicians?
ES: I wish I had some advice to offer, but I have to admit I'm at a loss, as this is something I too struggle with. Perhaps the only thing I can say is to try and organize your time, both in a macro and micro level, in such a way that you allot blocks of time to different activities—composing, practicing, performing, parenting, business, and all the rest of it. Try to create a structure around you, a support system for your artistic practice.
House of Numbers and Venezuelan Suite were funded by CMA’s New Jazz Works program, through the generous support of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.