Edward Simon’s Latin Improvisations

Emeryville-based Venezuelan pianist set to curate four evenings of music at SF Performances.

The space between two things — be they people, musical notes, performers and audiences, or the leadership of a country and its people — fascinates Edward Simon. The Venezuelan pianist, jazz improviser, composer-arranger, and band leader is especially intrigued by interstices, the smallest, most intimate gaps, and the wide divides that open like dark chasms but can be bridged when two entities choose to communicate across vast separations.

So it’s no surprise that an opportunity to curate San Francisco Performances’ annual Salon Series had Emeryville’s Simon jumping in with both feet. The alternative concert series offers four one-hour salons, held in the low-key atmosphere of the Education Studio of the War Memorial Veteran’s Building in San Francisco.

Simon is a Yamaha artist and member of the SFJAZZ collective. With 15 albums as a leader or co-leader, his 2016 album, Latin American Songbook, was awarded an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Jazz Album. Simon’s 2018 release, Sorrows and Triumphs, with three tracks inspired in part by his Buddhist practice and “bits of enlightenment that come every day,” received considerable praise for its intuitive lyricism combined with dense textures and rhythmic drive. Simon is on the faculty of the Roots, Jazz & American Music program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, among other positions as an arts educator.

Recognizable for a number of features, Simon’s compositions often blend intense, Latin-American polyrhythms with singable melodies and contemporary harmonies — all touched by minimalist concepts aimed at expressivity and revealing the indispensable essence of a piece of music. “My music is always informed by three main disciplines and traditions: Latin music in general, jazz improvisation, and classical music,” he said in an interview. “You hear to some degree all of those three elements.”

Born and raised in Venezuela, Simon’s early interest in pop music and the free-spirited approach and instrumentation of folkloric, indigenous Afro-Venezuelan music climbed into jazz soundscapes and became a point for departure through improvisation. Asked to speak on improvisation, a practice many people assume has few rules or is equivalent to “flying without a compass,” Simon sets the record straight. “Improvisation can seem like something we just do easily,” he said. “Like there’s no work that goes into it. Actually, the complete opposite is the truth.”

There is command of the instrument needed to execute ideas, familiarity with the language of a style or musical tradition, an astute ear to maintain compositional structure and sustain an organic dialogue between performers when playing with an ensemble. By transcribing recordings and practicing the work of great improvisers or by setting rules — intervalic limits between notes, for example — rehearsals become both a playground and an incubator. “If you’ve anchored an exercise, then letting go of the limits altogether can have a powerful effect. That’s the training. It’s a dance of being strict and then letting go, but not without knowing how to master the rules first.”

In selecting artists and repertoire for the Salon Series, Simon sought to collaborate with performers can relax, allow things to emerge, be present, and exist on the edge of discovery. “I bring that myself, but I don’t consider myself the most brilliant technician, so I like working with people who are, people who inspire me to get closer to an amazing quality he or she has.”

People like cellist Eric Gaenslen and violinist Hrabba Atladottir, who in the second salon will join Simon in performing Astor Piazzolla’s The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas), arranged for piano trio by José Bragato. The well-known piece is played with large, passionate gestures and abandonment. “With Eric and Hrabba, it’s an exciting journey,” Simon said, calling Gaenslen’s sensitivity on the cello and Atladottir’s experience and eagerness for Latin American-based, Argentinian music special.

The opening concert will be a piano program with work by Catalan composer Frederico Mompou and selections from Música Callada (the Voice of Silence). “He’s a Spanish composer, but lived and studied in France,” Simon said. “So his music is impressionistic but has the heartfelt quality of Spanish music. It’s spacious, quiet, simple music where you appreciate the sound of each instrument. You can hear the passion in his songs: the melodies are singable, even without lyrics.”

A solo jazz program announced from the stage during the third salon will present Simon’s favorite jazz composers; interlacing standards by Thelonious Monk, Billy Strayhorn, and others with Simon’s compositions and improvisation. “Each concert presents something unique. A solo concert is not something I do often. Being that exposed is quite a challenge: you have nothing to hide under. You have to be present in every note.”

The wrap-up show will have Simon on piano and Marcos Granados on flute. Performing South American music, selections from Venezuelan singer/songwriter Simón Díaz, and Simon’s Venezuelan Suite from the album of the same name, he said the two musicians share an instinctive, cultural bond. “He grew up in Venezuela more as a classical musician and I as a pop musician, but the music we play in this concert, we both have listened to for years. We have a common idea of what it sounds like in its country of origin. The flavor and free spirit of the music, Marcos has that.”

Asked about the future, both in his upcoming projects and his native land, which is roiling after the disputed presidential election of 2019, Simon said, “There’s a huge displacement, perhaps the largest in the history of Latin America,” he said of his home country. “Musicians are fleeing to different parts of the world and I know that especially the classical musicians have found positions in great orchestras. I think this is a great thing because people deserve to hear their music. At the same time, that means some of the great talent is leaving the country. I imagine it is inspiring some composers to express themselves, to write music that is about what’s happening to them. We’ll see over time how the migration will effect other parts of the world.”

During the 2020-2021 season, Simon will complete a SFJAZZ Collective commission for a solo work focused on the piano and improvisation. Developing algorithms to facilitate live improvisational interactions between humans and electronics is a burgeoning interest of his. And the structure of classical music, the groove and jive of jazz, and the propulsive energy of Latin American music always provide the fuel for his engine.

Jan. 15, Feb. 5, Feb. 26, Apr. 15, 6:30 p.m., $40, Education Studio, Veterans Building, 4th Floor, 401 Van Ness Avenue (at McAllister), San Francisco, 415-392-2545, SFPerformances.org

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