Jade Simmons, Riverlin, Rett Lea Jet Lounge July 6, 2012
When concert pianist Jade Simmons first learned that her computer wouldn't latch onto Jet Lounge's sound system Friday night, thereby ruining her chance to introduce to the audience her experimentation in partnering classical songs with hip-hop beats, she shrugged it off, immediately launching into an emotional rendition of Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C-sharp Minor.
Her figure was hunched over the piano like a concentrating surgeon, and her fingers sliced into the keys like soft cheese. By the time the song was over, she was rocking back and forth, eyes closed, lost in the sounds of the "old dead Russian guy."
"Sound guy, where are you?" she asked into the microphone, still rocking and hoping that, by this time, he had fixed the glitch.
When Sound Guy still hadn't appeared minutes later, she grew restless, entering into her own groovy arrangement of the classic in the interim.
"Come on, Sound Guy," she pleaded.
As he finally snaked his way toward the stage, informing Simmons that no, the CDs she provided for her performance wouldn't play, the pianist did what she does best -- besides playing the piano, of course -- she improvised.
"We're having a few technical difficulties," she announced, "but I'm going to roll with it, 'cause that's just how I rock," to which the eager audience erupted in a fit of cheers and claps.
It's no surprise that Simmons was able to bounce back so quickly; she is a master of improvisation, pinning jazz riffs and hip-hop beats onto classical songs, such as a Mozart sonata -- "one of the first pieces I played as a little girl," she said.
Nowhere was this more apparent than at Jet Lounge. Simmons didn't allow a few technical upsets to ruin her piano-meets-electronic performance; she played on.
Interestingly, Jade's opening acts had no such sound problems. We arrived just in time for one-man band Riverlin's six-song set of lazy-afternoon ditties, like "The Beer Song," in which he sang, "Do you want to go out for a beer with me?"
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Rett Lea's slightly off-key charms followed. The highlight was a song aptly named "The Pie Song," which he said was inspired by one day's sudden desire for pie. The song started innocently enough, however, with Lea's repeated chants of "Come and taste my pie" along with other suggestive phrases, the song soon became a (not-so) melodic double entendre.
After Rachmaninoff, Simmons played the first movement of Mozart's Sonata in F Major -- both classical and contemporary versions. Her initial plan out the window, she then opted to play a Sean Paul/Michael Myers "Sean Michaels" mash-up that sounded in some places like dancehall and in others, like Friday the 13th theme music.
The song was appropriate; though Simmons put on a happy face, playing to the audience with funny commentary between songs, those standing close to the stage could just make out a letdown in her eyes.
Simmons, 34, was born and raised in Charleston, S.C., educated at Northwestern, first runner-up at the 2000 Miss America pageant, artist-in-residence at the University of Chicago and more before settling in Houston, earning an MA from Rice University and becoming the recipient of multiple awards by yours truly.
In an earlier interview with the artist, she spoke of how excited she was to introduce the pairing of hip-hop beats with alternate arrangements of classical music for her Houston audience.
"I've grown as an artist, and I have an audience that is willing to try new things with me," Simmons said.
She stepped away from the piano for the climax of her performance: "Fire," a rap song from her forthcoming 5-track digital EP, Playing With Fire, that splices together her classical training with hip-hop, jazz, dancehall, electronic and film music, all at the hands of her musical collaborator, Roburt Reynolds.
"Fire" meant to have beats as well that night, but instead: "I'm going to rap a cappella for you, because I'm hardcore like that," she said.
Fire-engine red-streaked hair blazing (get the theme?), she prompted the audience to give her a homemade beat, postured across the stage -- rapper, DJ, hype man all in one -- and vented her frustrations that night with a cocky and comical lyrical assault of the song onto the swaying crowd. Eminem would have been proud. (Another single, "Boss's Nova," can be downloaded for free by clicking here.)
Playing With Fire exists because Simmons' record label, eONE Music (formerly Koch Records) pushed back her album until 2013. "I can't afford to not put out music until then," she said, adding that she would "cease to exist" if that happened.
So, what did she do? Improvise. Simmons started her own record label, Superwoman Records, at the end of June, one that she hopes caters to "really powerful and adventurous women."
Personal Bias: No electronic assistance, no problem. Jade Simmons possesses an enviable talent.
The Crowd: Youngsters rocking Bieber-style haircuts, jazz cats in Stacey Adams shoes and classical-music enthusiasts in their after-work button-downs. It was surprising to see an equal number of young people as old in Jet Lounge that night. I was sure the young hipsters would exit door left as soon as the opening acts finished their sets, but they stayed, and they were just as into the performance as the middle-aged folks.
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Overheard in the Crowd: "They need to have a dueling piano against a dueling organ!"
Random Notebook Dump: Interested listeners can find out more about the Simmons' Playing With Fire EP by visiting her Web site or by searching the hashtag #FireEP on Twitter.