With so many jazz musicians focusing on speed and virtuosity these days, Chicago pianist Fred Simon looks like quite a reactionary. He assiduously avoids technical flash, favoring moderate tempos and uncomplicated rhythms, uncluttered textures and open harmonies. In his compositions, he displays a fondness for arioso melodies that sound a lot like Wayne Shorter’s–and even more like those of another of his idols, singer-songwriter James Taylor. Simon has always emphasized pure sound in his music: he caresses notes instead of attacking them, striving for a lustrous tone. Luckily he’s hooked up with the British audiophile label Naim, which seems to share his priorities, for the new Dreamhouse–by far the best of the six discs under his own name. In 1991, when Simon released Open Book, his previous album of original material, he was in a deep rut; he’d withdrawn from outside influence, and his music sounded static and self-referential. But since then he’s reexamined chapters of jazz history that he’d placed on the back shelf–songbook standards, compositions of the 50s and 60s–and with this study he’s drawn fresh air into his own tunes, which still dominate his repertoire. He hasn’t started playing like a hard bopper, but now he sounds like he knows why that idiom has become a Rosetta stone for today’s jazz. Simon’s impressionistic music–like that of other pianists enamored of Keith Jarrett, including Pat Metheny’s longtime collaborator Lyle Mays–constantly risks crossing the line between honest sentiment and formulaic histrionics. For me, the success of his work depends entirely on his ability to gracefully understate its emotional content–something he does to a T on Dreamhouse. He recorded the album with his wife, drummer Sarah Allen, and a close friend, bassist Kelly Sill; Sill’s ripe timbre and perfectly placed chord roots give the music a roomy foundation, and Allen’s shimmering cymbal colors and subtle, insistent rhythms furnish each song with essential details. Both of them will join Simon here to celebrate the CD’s release. Wednesday, 9 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway; 773-878-5552. The trio also plays Thursday, October 19, at 8:30 PM at Pops for Champagne, 2934 N. Sheffield, 773-472-1000; and Saturday, October 21, at 8:30 PM at Pops Highwood, 214 Green Bay, Highwood, 847-266-1313.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bob Palmieri.