Simon Moullier’s respect for standards runs deep. “I think they’re an important part of the culture of this music,” he says. “I’ve always learned and will continue to learn from these great composer/musicians who left us such a large body of work to explore and play within.” The French-born, New York-based vibraphonist’s debut, 2020’s quintet-centric Spirit Song, only hinted at that appreciation with the inclusion of a shimmering, odd-metered take on “I’ll Remember April”—the album focused mostly on expansive originals aglow with modernistic promise. But its follow-up goes all in.
Countdown, released this past June, speaks to both the durability and malleability of standards. Capitalizing on a kinship with the rhythm section from his initial offering (bassist Luca Alemanno and drummer Jongkuk Kim), Moullier produces an enthralling trio set that honors the work of innovators while doing some interior redecoration of their well-visited spaces. The John Coltrane-designed title track, for example, takes on a slightly menacing tone even as it maintains an athletic posture. An engrossing look at Thelonious Monk’s “Work” is all trance and dance. And a caffeinated ride through Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House” leads with chattering rhythms before charging ahead.
All of the performances give off an inviting lived-in feel. Yet derivation doesn’t figure into these interpretations. Moullier chalks that fine balance up to lessons learned about a song’s strength of character and the tidal shifts that often come through tiny adjustments: “When I was at the Thelonious Monk Institute, working with artists like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, we had to write a lot. And I would often over-arrange—take a standard and, while keeping the melody, change everything about it. But over time my mentors and teachers helped me to understand that it’s not necessary, since those songs already carry so much information. It’s really more about exploring the essence of the song. And I hear that when I listen to Trane or Monk or Freddie Hubbard or Charlie Parker. The way they approach these melodies, there’s a certain vibe or edge, but not too much [re]arrangement. They’ll only add a little something—an intro, a piano riff, a new rhythm, a few different chords—yet that small addition is actually huge and helps to make it new. It lets the song breathe and also be itself, which is what I want to accomplish with my arrangements.”
Case in point is Moullier’s masterful take on “Nature Boy.” Adopting a cloak-and-dagger cool befitting a back-alley Tom Waits tale, and offering some Latin suggestions to boot, the Nat King Cole-associated gem charms in a way that took some real strategizing to achieve. “During the recording, we spent a significant amount of time working to make the groove and feel come alive,” Moullier explains. “Our goal in general is to make our instruments disappear and become one entity. In other words, transcend the technicality and focus on the character and emotions that we can create. Almost like if we were film scoring, but live.”
Moullier’s manner of workshopping and arranging material proves central to the success of both of his albums. So does his strong rapport with Alemanno and Kim, who each grew in parallel to the vibraphonist during his studies: “I went to Berklee with JK for four years, so from 2012 to 2016 we were hanging a lot, working on different projects. And then when I went to the Monk Institute, I met Luca. He was like my brother there. We did so many trips and tours, we were always together.”
“Going back helps with the process of moving forward.”
As for when these three became one, Moullier can pinpoint the exact moment: “We were in L.A. in 2017 to do a quintet show. And in the middle of this performance at the Blue Whale, I decided I wanted to change the pace and give the horn players some air. So we played this blues as a trio, which is actually on YouTube now, and things seemed to click. I watched the video and started to hear that [this combination] had a strong identity.” That singular energy was already evident in Moullier’s synth-glazed production pieces on Spirit Song, but it’s equally apparent in the trio’s engagement with the classics on Countdown. “That music, which is older, is what helps us to be able to put something new out there. In other words, going back helps with the process of moving forward, and that’s exactly why I wanted to make a standards album.”