On the evening of April 18th (with Lyn enjoying the morning of her 51st birthday in Woodland Hills, Utah), I joined Zarko and Anne for their first wedding anniversary celebration (they have been together for twenty-some years). Anne was to meet us in a Greek restaurant on Alteburger Strasse after returning from Solingen, where she works as a psychologist. It was the first mild evening of a very cold European spring. As Zarko and I strolled from their apartment, likewise on the Alteburger Strasse, to the restaurant, we passed the “Litho,” a club where Zarko had introduced me to Balkan Jazz in 1999.
In the Greek restaurant we ordered grappa and a plate of appetizers and settled in to wait for Anne. We talked about our new book, about Peter Handke, about the depth of Zarko’s love for and commitment to Anne, about my fortunate partnership with Lyn, about John Smith — a graduate student friend of mine who had met Zarko at the University of Tuebingen, which had led, a year later, to my meeting Zarko there as well.
Over the conversation I heard snatches of jazz saxophone. I looked out the open window and saw a dark figure bent over a tenor sax at the Oxin Persian/Mediterranean Restaurant. That’s Nicolas Simion, Zarko said.
While Zarko stayed at our table writing in his notebook, I leapt across the street and stood on the sidewalk outside the wide open doors of the restaurant. Simion and an accordion player were in the middle of a set of jazz standards, a long medley of tunes introduced only to establish chord changes that the two musicians then improvised on at length and with obvious relish.
Relish is a good word for Simion. Slowly approaching 60, he still has the enthusiasm of a young man, the broad smile of a man happy to be alive, the charismatic presence of a born performer. I stood transfixed, witnessed a joyful musician utterly serious about his music.
I caught the accordionist’s eye in the middle of a discursive solo and nodded my pleasure. He nodded back. I applauded at the end of one of Simion’s solos and he turned to nod his thanks. A couple walking by stopped to join me as audience, as did a young man walking alone. The musicians played the first bars of the bouncy “my favorite things” and just as I thought I knew what to expect they accelerated the tempo and shifted to a dissonance that required further acceleration which led to a wild balkan rush that reminded me of the gypsy music in Emir Kusturica’s films. While I looked around to see if any flocks of Kusturican geese might be coming my way, the set ended with an exuberant flourish.
I bought two CD’s from the musicians: the first by Martin Lubenov’s Orkestar, led by the accordionist — “dui droma/two roads” and the other recorded by The Nicolas Simion Group — “Transylvanian Jazz.” I crossed the street with my treasures and found that Anne had arrived. Sorry, I said, I couldn’t tear myself away. I don’t think either of them held it against me.
We finished our dinner and crossed the street to have dessert. The last set ended just as we sat down. Simion came over to say hello to his friend Zarko and Zarko introduced me as the person who had written a piece about him for the Salt Lake Observer. Yes, Simion said, I have a translation on my website:
Please accept this CD as a kind of thank you, he said, handing me “Nicolas Simion / Florian Weber Duo: Classic Meets Jazz Vol. 1.”
After a tasty dessert with coffee, Anne and Zarko and I walked home. Almost 15 years after first hearing Simion on this very street, I thought, here I was again, filled with the playful complexities of his music. Filled with joy.
. . . . . . . . . . excerpt from the Salt Lake Observer piece:
But now the bombing has stopped, and Cologne’s “Balkan Forum,” headed by Dužan Milosević (a formerly innocuous name), is sponsoring a jazz night in the Litho Restaurant. It’s a noisy, smoke-filled place, seating a hundred people at most. Black-and-white photos decorate the walls, and a short-haired dog begs for scraps. Featured tonight is the Nicolas Simion Quintet, with Simion, a broad-chested, black-bearded Romanian, on tenor sax, a young and talented flugelhorn player whose name I didn’t catch, and a rhythm section of stubble-faced, slack-jawed Mihal Farcas (Romanian) on drums, Macedonian Martin Gjakonovski (who appears with Dusko Goykovich on “A Night in Skopje”) on bass, and the quick-fingered German Norbert Scholly on guitar.
I sit with Dušan and Anne and Žarko at a tiny table tucked into the armpit of the bandstand. By the time the evening is over the table is buried under a dozen beer and wine glasses, two bags of tobacco, three packs of cigarette paper, a pack of cigarettes, two overflowing ashtrays, a tape recorder, a pack of batteries, a sketch pad for the snakey haired house artist, assorted pens and pencils, Simion’s soprano case, a candle, a dozen CD’s for sale, and loose cash for the CD’s that have sold.The crowd of Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians, Germans, and at least one American warm quickly to the quintet. In his freely ranging solos Simion leaves no doubt about his debt to Ornette Coleman. Simion’s tunes also hint at the oriental scales and rhythms of Balkan folk music, songs like “Geamparale,” based on a Romanian wedding dance in 9/8 time (reminiscent of Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” – or better said, Brubeck’s tune, as its title suggests, is reminiscent of music from the Balkans).