Giovanni: Here we are, I’ve got some questions, but first… let me tell you, this is some great work. Great musicians and really nice music.
Simon: Thank you. It was my first album alone and yeah, I think everyone helped making the project a big success.
Giovanni: Tell me more about the process. I’m particularly interested about the direction of the sound and the arrangements. Did you work alone, or there was some kind of input from the band?
Simon: I worked alone. It couldn’t have been otherwise, because there was no band when I started revising the material and arranging the music… actually, it’s not completely true that I worked alone. I had the precious supervision of professor John Mills of the University of Texas in Austin.
Simon: Yes. What happened was that the project changed halfway. Initially, I had gone to Austin to gather some old songs, revise them, write new material, and arrange the albums. I had the idea of a cool jazz album in mind, but in Austin I just intended to end up with a pile of charts, to be recorded in Bari. John agreed to give me some further lessons and advice on the material. He corrected some mistakes and gave me precious advice on how to put together the album so that, at least on paper, everything would have flown well. Then, in the midst of things… I think it was actually him saying: “why don’t you record it here?” It turned out that it was possible to get together a good band and since the material was almost done, I thought it was worth to work extra hours and actually finish the album in Austin.
Giovanni: I see. How did the change of direction affect the work?
Simon: Well… I went from “I’ll take a light holiday in Austin” to spending almost every day working about 12 hours a day! I remember my housemates joking on it, saying I was going to take roots at my desk. On a level, it was a mistake. If I had planned the work to be recorded from day one, I could’ve taken better notes on key issues that would have come up in the studio, and organize the work better. But I did come home with an album that would have taken forever to record, in Italy, so I was definitely worth it.
Giovanni: Why do you think it would have been harder to record in Italy?
Simon: Perhaps it’s just me, but I have the impression that jazz musicians are a bit more… I would say conservative, over here. It’s like classical musicians in Europe vs classical musicians in U.S.. In Europe it’s our heritage, you can find people who “play with the idiom” so to speak. When it’s not your heritage, I think people fear to be judged insincere or unprofessional if they don’t stick to the tenets of the idiom. In this case: pieces like Jamaica Junction or There It Is are not your average jazz pieces. People would have offered advice on how to “make them better” and the would process would have been a real pain, especially because it was my first album and I didn’t have the strenght to say: “just play what I want”. Having American musicians meant that I could just give them my music, which, naturally, can’t be “pure jazz”. And they just made it their own. It was an exciting and quick process.
Giovanni: Why do you say your music can’t be “pure jazz”?
Simon: Well, for one thing, it’s not the 1930s anymore. You turn on the radio and you listen to hip hop, rock, metal… You might not like these genres, but they do get a bit under your skin. Plus, they change the expectations of the listeners. The was music communicates emotions has got richer and you can’t simply ignore what’s going on in other genres. Plus, jazz has moved on, too. Fusion, non-American jazz… these things all come together, making the music new and exciting, in general. And then there’s Simon Mas the composer: I like and listen a huge variety of music, and it naturally comes out when I write. To cite the two pieces I named before: Jamaica Junction has a certain Fellinian feel, very soft and Mediterranean; There It Is, instead, is angular, acidic. I can definitely see some King Crimson influence.
Giovanni: So, it’s all about your experiences. Was it fundamental to spend time oversea to get where you are now?
Simon: No single experience makes or break a composer or a musician. Can someone become himself following a different path? Perhaps, but some details would be different. On the other hand, the basic agenda of a composer, I think, is not dictated by where you studied and who you met. I think one has a good idea of where his music is heading, even at the start of his career. Some characteristics are too ingrained to be changed. In my case… I’ve always loved a strong melody. In most music I write, you will find a strong melody, regardless of the rest. So, I guess it really depends on how someone perceives the evolution of a composer.
Giovanni: One last question: did the lyrics take cue from real experiences? Are they just fantasies?
Simon: There’s a healthy mix of reality and fantasy, I guess. Outside deals with a night out with my girlfriend at the time, but there are some references to a couple of Montale’s Ossi di Seppia poems. Jamaica Junction deals with a real fight on a subway train in New York: i guess it’s the most realistic lyrics in the album. Valentine, instead, is the least realistic. It started as a song for a girl I liked a long time ago… but I never managed to properly finish it until I reviewed the song for the album, a good decade later.
Giovanni: Well, that’s it for now. Thank you.
Simon: Thank you.