Simon Moullier was determined to give New York City one more chance.
The French-born vibraphonist seemed to have everything required for a successful jazz career. After graduating from Berklee College of Music, where renowned trumpeter and professor Darren Barrett made him an essential part of several recording projects, Moullier earned a Master’s degree from the elite Thelonious Monk Institute in 2018 while studying with jazz legends Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Billy Childs.
Most importantly, Moullier, 29, had developed a distinctive voice on his instrument, a rhythmically assertive and melodically charged approach that made him one of the most exciting young vibraphonists on the scene.
But his phone didn’t ring. For two years.
“I was putting in a lot of hours at home,” said Moullier, who moved back to Nantes in western France for the first 18 months of the pandemic. “I put in even more hours practicing in Nantes. When I came back to New York at the end of 2021 I was like, let’s give this one more try.”
Instead of waiting for calls, he made a point of getting out on the scene and sitting in with other musicians whenever possible. Bit by bit he connected with some of his prodigiously talented peers, including the players who join him for a four-night run at San Francisco’s Black Cat May 25-28.
It’s the same group of musicians featured on his recently released third album, “Isla,” with bassist Alexander Claffy, South Korean drummer Jongkuk Kim, and pianist Lex Korten. He’s hardly the only player to have built a band around Kim and Korten, a prized rhythm section tandem hired for hundreds of gigs led by more than a dozen bandleaders in recent years.
Kim and Moullier were already tight, “and the moment Simon moved back from France, JK was scheming to get me on the gig, too,” said Korten, referring to Kim by his nickname.
Though raised in New York, Korten has close family ties in the Bay Area, including a grandfather who lives across the street from Stanford. The pianist grew up attending the Stanford Jazz Workshop, where he came under the wing of Taylor Eigsti, and returned as an adult to serve as a Workshop counselor for several summers.
With experience accompanying his generation’s leading vibraphonists, including Joel Ross, Venezuelan-born Juan Diego Villalobos, and San Francisco-reared Sasha Berliner, Korten particularly admires the way Simon concentrates on calibrating a group sound.
“He’s brought to the table the idea of thinking about the timbre of instruments working together in a unified way,” Korten said. “By locking in certain voicings on vibes and piano in the same register it’s like we create a new instrument with a beautiful, resonant sound.”
Moullier’s engagement is his third run at Black Cat in the past two years, but his most recent appearance in the Bay Area was as part of a particularly ambitious project. In February Terri Lyne Carrington featured him as a soloist on vibes and marimba with the California premiere of her multimedia production “Seen/Unseen” at the SFJAZZ Center.
An impressionistic homage to the struggles and strength of Black women in the United States, the project featured the Del Sol String Quartet, a wind section, illustrious improvisers like flutist Elena Pinderhughes, trumpeter Etienne Charles, and pianist Orrin Evans, as well as multidisciplinary artist Mickalene Thomas responding to the music with live visuals via Minor Auditorium’s state-of-the-art projection system.
“It’s one long piece, no part ever repeats,” Moullier said. “I really like the concept, the story, the way that all the drawings that Mickalene projects adds to the atmosphere.”
While Moullier is a student of his instrument, he’s a relative late-comer to the vibraphone. He started off studying tympani in classical settings and drums in jazz and only started focusing on vibes at 17. He’s studied the masters, particularly Bobby Hutcherson, “but I can’t say it’s a main source of inspiration,” he said.
Rather, he’s focused on trumpeters, pianists, vocalists like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Astrid Gilberto, “and saxophonists,” Moullier said. “Coltrane is my main influence when it comes to playing melodies and solos.”
After giving New York another shot, he’s well on his way, though Moullier is mindful that vibraphonists are in a very different boat than pianists or bassists, who are always in demand.
“It’s definitely not an instrument that people feel they need as much as a bassist, so I’m working more as a leader than a sideman,” he said. “I have to make moves myself. The gigs I do get as a sideman I cherish.”
Contact Andrew Gilbert at [email protected].
SIMON MOULLIER QUARTET
When & where: Through May 28 at Black Cat, 400 Eddy St., San Francisco
Tickets: $25-$45; 415-385-1999, blackcatsf.com
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