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Checking in No. 6: Marlysse Simmons

Marlysse Simmons (Photo by Peter McElhinney)
Marlysse Simmons: pianist, composer and arranger for Bio Ritmo and Mirmar. Photo by Peter McElhinney. 

This edition of Checking in features a conversation with Marlysse Simmons - a pianist, composer and arranger who plays with and runs the salsa band Bio Ritmo and the bolero ensemble Miramar. Simmons’ mother had a collection of Brazilian music that included records of Antonio Carlos Jobim which made a deep impression on Marlysse. Later on in her twenties, when she was out of college, she put her classical music training aside and started delving more deeply into the world of latin music. Since that time, she has studied with pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill and developed a variety of latin musical projects.

When the pandemic hit, Simmons was on tour with Miramar in Russia. In this segment she talks about that unusual trip and what it’s been like contending with a loss of income during the pandemic while living with her partner and raising a child. She also discusses the music that has given her solace and provided inspiration.   

This segment contains excerpts of performances by Bio Ritmo, Miramar, a string quartet called Rosette, and a recording by the Brooklyn-based trio Big Lazy featuring Marlysse playing the Farfisa VIP organ. There are also some clips of classic recordings by Jobim, Peruchin, Noro Morales and Desmond Dekker.

Watch Miramar’s tiny desk concert here.

Watch Bio Ritmo’s tiny desk concert here.

Edited Transcript:

[Music: Bio Ritmo: Muchacho]

MARLYSSE SIMMONS: My name is Marlysse Simmons. I am a pianist, composer and educator, and (I’ve) been based out of Richmond since about 2003. Originally from the Washington DC area, and my main projects - what brought me to Richmond - was the salsa band Bio Ritmo, and I still continue to play with them, although we haven't played a whole lot in the past couple years. I also have a project I lead called Miramar, which also does Latin music. The type of genre we focus on is bolero music, but we also do our original songs that's inspired by that genre. And besides that, I just, I try and write music for whatever I can find, like to… be diverse in what I do. And I also teach private piano lessons and occasionally do other things, mostly related to music. 

PETER SOLOMON (HOST): Can you tell me what your formative influences were that led you to a career in music?

[Music: Noro Morales: Vitamina]

Marlysse Simmons (Photo by Chris Smith)
Marlysse Simmons (Photo by Chris Smith) 

SIMMONS: Oh, well, you know what happened with me is my mom forced me to take piano and she would not let me quit. Even though, when I turned about 12, 13 I wanted to quit. Like, I feel like most kids want to quit, and there was no quitting in my home. She also played piano so that was inspiring for her. She knew she needed to push me through it. And piano always was something that just came to me… I had fun doing it when I realized I was having fun, you know, after the 13 year old phase. And I kept that up until probably, at least in my early 20s, and I went through college (and) got a degree in music. It was all classical and then it was in my 20s that I kind of let go of all that and started exploring the worlds of jazz (and Latin music) and it was right away that I was playing Latin music - probably because of my heritage. I mean, my mother's from Chile, although they she didn't necessarily have a salsa collection, but that's kind of what I just gravitated towards, ultimately.

SOLOMON: In the world of Latin music, are there certain composers or certain musicians composers you gravitated to?

SIMMONS: Early on, it was definitely the old Cuban son music that that really attracted me and caught my attention. And in particular the piano stylings of Peruchin, who's a Cuban pianist in the 50s.

[Music: Peruchin: Son de La Loma]

Noro Morales - kind of the same era. There's actually a radio show I always attribute to my… that really helped me. It was a radio show up in DC -still playing -  Latin flavor. WPFW. Jim Byers. His just shows always featured, just like the best of that era. And that's how I got introduced to Eddie Palmieri, Charlie Palmieri, Tito Puente and all that old Mambo stuff and that just really got my attention. Also, through my mother, her collection was very diverse and also extremely heavy on the Brazilian side. And that was actually what - Brazilian music is what got me in to Latin music, and it's all Latin music. You tend to defer because of the language, but it was bossa nova and samba stuff that she had collection of that I grew up listening to that, that pushed me into wanting to play music by, you know, Jobim. Jobim was the number one - my number one man at that point like I loved everything he did with his piano and his compositions and just really drew me into another world of music.

[Music: Antonio Carlos Jobim: Stone Flower]

[Music: Miramar: Olas Y Arenas]

SOLOMON: (Announcing song) Miramar with Olas Y Arenas by Sylvia Rexach, arranged by Marlysse Simmons and featuring Laura Ann Singh on vocals. Marlysse was on tour with Miramar oversaes when the pandemic started forcing people all over the world to go into lockdown.

SIMMONS: Our tour started in the beginning of March and we left a few days before March so we could be in Moscow as tourists for a week. This is with the band Miramar. And it was through a kind of a State Department funded tour. And at that point, nothing was happening over here at all. I mean, it was happening in Europe already, but just starting. So it was sort of amazing that we even left. And then while we're in Russia, slowly the news started to… Of course, we're still on Facebook and seeing the news. And we started to realize what was going on in the world. Russia, you know, was sort of the last - I mean - Russia didn't have any cases yet, or at least they claimed, so … there was no stress in Russia yet. The last few days of our tour, one show got canceled, and you could tell… things were about to shut down. But things had already shut down in the US like a week before that at least. And we were starting to hear from friends and family how it was becoming. I mean, for me, it was it was a really surreal feeling to be in Siberia playing a gig when everyone else had shut down. I say that because... We felt so lucky that we got this trip in… It almost didn't happen if it would have been a week later and the trip was amazing. And we had such a great experience and every place we played, I mean, that's a whole other story.

So when we came back when we had to fly through JFK… we drove instead of flying to Richmond. We drove and it … felt like two weeks of just oh my gosh, what's going on? And realizing, you know, how to live in this new world... I teach piano and … I realized that everyone was starting to do that through this… Zoom and FaceTime. So, eventually I started that. My lessons started up again after a couple weeks. Not everybody came back for lessons though through that manner. But you know, all the gigs … were canceled… And it took few weeks to figure out if we qualified… as gig workers, independent workers… There was no manner of receiving any unemployment yet. And it was amazing to see how… it took a few weeks for the websites and everything to kick in. And when that kicked in, that helped us a lot. I mean, Rei is my partner, and he's also in the band. So we were both out of work on that front. He also works at a restaurant, so he was out of work. Yeah, it was like we were both out of work right away. And, like, again…if the trip wouldn't have happened, I'm not sure where we would have been because the trip was extra money for that month … That helped us helped us along for those few weeks that we were out of work and out of any help or assistance. 

[Music: Rosette: Waltz 43] 

SOLOMON: What has been the emotional toll of not being able to work?

SIMMONS: The emotional toll has been weird… So, then I also have a two-year-old, so that's been another thing and he just turned two in the middle of April. So I'm also dealing with…life - like how do I deal with life with a two year old and doing what I want to do as a musician? And that’s a whole other thing, and emotionally, it's been draining, I have to say. I mean, I haven't felt … the desire or a lot of inspiration to write. The way the world works now, you start to feel guilty because you see so many people doing things. Right away, people are on online doing their videos of their songs and I just didn't have the energy to make that happen for a while. Now, in the past couple of weeks, we've done some things. But besides just like, everything that's going on, besides the COVID … everything else that's happening with the protest and Black Lives Matters movement and just …. everything, it's been hard to - for me - to be creative, and… it made me feel guilty that I wasn't being creative. I definitely have felt like, Oh… this is the time I should be (creative). But after talking to other artists and composers, you know, I started to feel less bad because I realize everybody's going through this, it's just a hard time and also just to be at home and you're, it's all the time and you're with your partner all the time. And it's like, okay, you know, it's a great thing, especially for us because of our baby to be around him right now a lot, but it's also just it's just normal. taxing you know, on each other and figuring it out. 

SOLOMON: In June, Miramar was invited to participate in the James River Film Society’s “Silent Music Revival Goes Viral.” The band improvised a score for a 1931 silent film called Limite by the Brazilian Filmmaker Mario Peixoto. The performance (watch the film with Miramar’s score here) was recorded at Spacebomb studio and accompanied the film as it was offered online.

[Music: Miramar: So Quero Saber]

SIMMONS: And that was really a great day because we got to play live and Spacebomb Studio is big enough that we could be distanced apart and we got to to play this… for an hour of live music and improvising in between, and it hadn't happened in so long. So… that really helped us feel normal again. And also just yesterday, Bio Ritmo for the first time in six months, got together in a backyard and played a song for the Science Museum for something they're doing today. Some kind of online Zoom, happy hour. And so that was again, like, Bio Ritmo especially, I mean, that just that was great to see everybody and also play music that we hadn't played in so long. Those two things this past week have helped me feel great this week and helped me remember what I'm doing and I know it helped other musicians in the band. I was just talking to the guitarist. He’s like, man, thatreally helped help me get through. You know, I want to play guitar again and I hadn't been wanting to even play but after we got to do the session Saturday, he's like, I feel inspired.

[Music: Big Lazy Featuring Marlysse Simmons: Ramona]

SOLOMON: Are there things that you do to seek solace, is there music that you turn to?

SIMMONS: You know, it's funny. I have my go-to Brazilian tracks that always make me feel great. Again it’s like where it all started with a Jobim and Elis Regina album and Rei is in the house has been playing playing a bunch of his salsa that I can tell is his go-to. He’s been playing records of his of Marvin Santiago that … helps him stay focused and, and good about stuff. And then just a couple days ago, because the the baby has a book about reggae music, I was like, Oh, I love ska.

[MUSIC: Desmond Dekker: Mount Zion]

Old ska and that's been like the new thing. And then, because that music is so happy and jumpy, and that’s been my new … the past actually 48 hours, that’s been my new thing - listening to old ska albums online, like 60s.  I've been looking up the classics. And that music is so happy and so and you know, it's great to for the baby just to hear and got him doing that. Chock-it Chock-it. I got him doing that now. (Laughs)

SOLOMON: What do you miss the most?

SIMMONS: I miss …just obviously having an audience, a live audience to play for and the interaction of that.  I actually haven't done … any of these live video things. My heart isn't there yet to, to make it. Well (it) hasn't been necessary yet and also everything I've done has been “okay let's get together in a big space and do it live” rather than individually in our homes. Because … as a viewer, you look at everybody, you see people online, it looks like they're having a great time. And there's these six squares or however many people are in the band and it looks like everyone's playing together. And meanwhile it's a lot of effort to make that happen, especially if it's it's more than three or four people.

Arturo O’Farrill, who is someone I studied with when I was in New York… about two years ago … He has a big band and…every week they're doing a big band live. It's not live, but it's recorded and it takes… them all week to make this happen. You know, it's a lot of effort and you look at it, it looks like everyone's having fun and they're all playing together. And it's like No, everyone's at home probably a little bit depressed, you know, in their closet room in New York City probably. 

… So I miss just that and I think … everybody who is a performer misses playing for people, you know, … it's what we do, especially with the music I do. Especially for Bio Ritmo. But you know… dance music - Miramar as well -  and playing with Laura Ann. I mean… all our music is meant for dancing in some way. And that interaction. 

SOLOMON: What are you most looking forward to? 

SIMMONS: Well, I guess I'm looking forward to performing and also to see you know, maybe in a couple years when we look back on this it'll be the when you can look at what happened like what did people create what new things came out of this moment? In a few years we're going to look back at this and there's so many things to look back on. But musically speaking, what happened? Like what, where did this take music?... Where's all this people playing online - basically for free - What's that gonna lead to? You know, and there's been a lot of talk online like… this is terrible for music because it's just making things even lessening the value of music. But I don't know, is it’s so hard to tell what this what this is going to do. But what I'm looking forward to is just that just being able to perform again, for a live audience. 

[MUSIC: Os Magrelos: Seja Como For]