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 In 1991, when Simon released Open Book, his previous album of original material, he was in a deep rut; he'd withdrawn from outside influence, and his music sounded static and self-referential.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.