Ercüment Orkut is ready to receive the attention of jazz lovers once again with his new project Persona that was recorded three years after his debut album Low Profile. I wanted to first direct this question to Orkut, who seems to have chosen a new musical path for himself. The pianist will present his trio to Istanbul audiences on the 6th of February during his album launch concert at Aksanat.
It is evident that you have gone through a transformation when we compare this album to your first one. I think Low Profile was like a compilation of compositions written when young. What happened in between?
(Laughing) I think you might not need me during this interview! What you said is mostly correct. I observe that first albums generally consist of looking at the material already at hand. There were seven pieces in the first album, I had recently written three, and the rest were very old compositions. It was a period when I was thinking whether I am able, if I had written good music. But it is necessary to do this and put it aside, one needs to start somewhere. Not that it didn’t feel right, I really like the album but I always had other things in my mind as well.
Looking at them together now, preparations for Persona can be heard in pieces like Ark…
I wrote Ark upon returning home from an Aydın Esen concert. Would I write different things if I hadn’t gone to the concert those days, I don’t think so… Aydın Esen’s has a big influence on all of us. Now everything is going in a different direction, when it comes to expression.
How would you describe this direction?
I have been playing the piano since I was three, I studied in the piano department from nine to my twenties; I spent my life with this instrument called piano. I had been searching answers for the questions; should I concentrate solely on this instrument, or more correctly, how would it be if I expressed myself while solely concentrating on this. Secondly, the first album had four musicians and Persona has three. This is me challenging myself. It is easier to shoulder the hardships when there are four or more musicians.
Your responsibility is bigger now…
As a pianist, you have to play a lot and you have to do this in a way that is not boring… I thought ‘I should record as a trio’ to get over this. Another important reason that gave birth to Persona was the fact that the music I listen to has changed. The fact that I had been to New York, going to a workshop in Siena… I had been to San Francisco for educational reasons years before Low Profile, but there was a long gap in between. I started to think about what are the contemporary concerns as I was able to go to Europe more often, for example to Berlin. Of course, you listen to that classical fusion style if you go to New York still; I had listened to a band that consisted of Gary Novak, Arto Tunçboyacı, Scott Kinsey, Matt Garrison one evening, it was a lot of fun, this kind of music still finds its place there.
Who did you work with in Siena?
Miguel Zenon, Aaron Parks and many great Italian musicians like Stefano Battaglia.
I think this last trip and works were very influential.
Definitely. Working with musicians on a higher level than us, even watching or spending time with them change a lot of things, these cause new ideas to be born in your head I think. I am in a period that I am driven towards such searches. Of course, there is the Tamer Temel factor when Persona is concerned. I can say that I entered his territories these days.
You have been working together with Tamer for a while, your collaborative project Töz was recently released, let’s note that down as well… So, how did you decide to invite him as a producer to this album?
I have been feeling that my performance as a pianist is different when I play my own projects compared to when I play for others. The difference is a bit due to the level of responsibility. Let me put it this way: We all have an energy quota, in calories. It isn’t healthy to try to do everything alone, going to the control room after every piece, put on your music director hat, go back, record another piece, your hands need warm ups etc…. (Laughing) The musicians and the sector had faced this problem years ago, and they ultimately found the solution in assigning a director. It is necessary to follow this known method. Tamer had already shouldered the responsibility of a similar position while recording Çağıl Kaya’s second album. Only one of two pieces in Çağıl’s album had saxophone in them, Tamer put on the headset in the control room after recording with the band and stayed there, giving us ideas from the outside. It was very convenient. After that experience, I thought it is a good idea to include Tamer in my own album as well. I knew that I could entrust the album to Tamer; I admire him as a musician and composer. I am glad I did so; he had some very important contributions to the forms of the pieces… For example, Diş Perisi might not have made it to the album if it wasn’t for Tamer.
Is that so? It is one of my favorite pieces in the album.
Diş Perisi was reminiscent of my older periods on the paper and I had worries. We brainstormed about it with Tamer and planned changes especially for the drums. Tamer made such contributions and shouldered the heavy weight himself at the same time. I did not have to go to the control room for the first time in my life. I looked up when the pieces were finished as if to say “What do you think?” and we moved on when he gave the okay. Tamer and I have been playing together for three years in different projects so we almost have the same ideas about what we hear.
You worked diligently on the recording. It feels akin to a live recording but also has aspects that feel controlled. Did you think of the solos beforehand?
Everybody worked a lot for this recording. What I mean is, I wanted Persona to be played and recorded in a way that it did not require touch ups after walking out of the studio, tweaks like electric fusion albums usually require afterwards. Therefore we had a preparation period where we decided where to place the drum kit and the piano to get the best sound in the studio. Before I forget, those who buy the CD will already see this but I would like to mention that Jordi Vidal did a wonderful mix in Barcelona. Oğuz Öz did a great job during the recording process as well, the mix wouldn’t turn this way if he hadn’t. We prepared for the album by playing 8 concerts. I am sure this reflects on the album. We fundamentally wanted everything to be organic. For example, Diş Perisi has some open solos, there are parts without chords or forms. I asked Tamer to stop the recording if these parts lead to showing off. I didn’t want anyone to elongate their solo further and further thinking “Wow I am playing great”. Everybody followed this since they knew my preference. I wanted to play as if we were 1200 years old members of a different race that lived up to 1500 years old on a different planet, I wanted that kind of maturity. On the other hand, I think solos are like compositions. Once you start the solo and go further in it, the options more or less present themselves. I always thought I should come up with solos that did not show off before going into the recording session. This could be because I want it to be compact and tidy.
What would you like to say about Matt and Volkan when this recording is concerned?
It is hard and beautiful at the same time to play as a piano trio, as most of you already know. It is a great opportunity here to be with Matt and Volkan. Because ‘what I want to do’ became ‘what we do’ when we came together. That is; making compact music with dynamic and wide free areas that allows space, and instead allows us to feed on each other’s ideas. It is necessary to have a great mastery of instruments and musical accumulation as well as the willingness to let egos go. One has to ‘use their ears frequently’ and even love is necessary. Matt Hall and Volkan Öktem have all these qualities… we were able to create an album we all felt good about due to this. It definitely wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for them.
I think there was a change in the team in the meanwhile.
Yes, Matt decided to go back to USA with a surprise decision. I am so lucky to continue our trip with such an esteemed double bass player as Kağan Yıldız.
I would like to speak about the bigger picture. There is a considerable community of musicians in Turkey now, everyone makes recordings but not all command the attention.
I think there is a problematic understanding about this. Everyone wants to release albums now that it is way easier than before. It is almost fashionable. There shouldn’t be albums just for the sake of making them. Nobody actually wants to hurt one another, some critiques are left unsaid, therefore thing scan end up superficial. The same things are said when a new album comes out. It is true that making albums motivates musicians… it makes one feel as they belong to the community but it is important to ask why you are making an album and what do you want to leave as your recorded legacy once you are gone. I wrote maybe fifty compositions before I could choose the ones included in Persona. I still wonder whether I should have included some of the compositions. Let’s imagine a bağlama player, he makes an album because he writes good music, but he can’t play well. What will happen if he performs abroad? Otherwise, everyone should play, record, be happy. But that is not the main concern here.
On the other hand, it feels like the accelerating period that your generation pushed forward is coming to an end, there are signs of deceleration. Are there new musicians, ideas in the newer generations? What does the future look like?
Hopefully this isn’t the golden years. Looking at the situation in Turkey, the direction the country is facing is now different than the one we grew up in. Therefore the future looks bleak. It is not clear who will follow and through with examples, etc. There are great musicians who are about ten years younger than me; how happy that makes me, I am their ‘brother’ now. My humble suggestion would be that everyone should do their work well almost obsessively. Only then we can overcome the negativities.
Is this really possible in a structure that supports the anxiety of popularity and to push things out fast?
The first CD that I bought when I was in high school was a Yellowjackets album. I saved up to buy it, and listened to it from beginning to end many times. Now we can only tolerate it for a minute, our attention span grew shorter with the influence of the social media. But it is the musician’s job to do things right instead of accepting this and throwing in the towel. We can only leave our legacy behind if we keep the quality of our work away from such negativity. it is true we are somewhat poisoned. But I still hope that writing music will be the same for my grandkids as it was for Mozart. Bach wrote only two pieces that weren’t commissioned. If he had passed on doing commissioned work, maybe we would not learn anything from him.
Back to the project; do you have any plans to give concerts in Europe?
We first want to visit other cities in Turkey. I am sending out the recording to the festivals in Europe as well; to see if it might work out… But I am a little confused about this. Everyone in Europe is complaining about something. It is hard everywhere to play and tour, to find jobs, and to be able to pay your accompanying musicians the money they deserve etc. I write music for TV shows, movies and the like in order to be able to play jazz myself.
What kind of methods do you follow to mentally transition between them?
Honestly, there is no mental process in this transition for me. Music is music in my head. However, thinking about it; sometimes I listen to movie scores I like before writing music for a visual instead of watching that particular scene… If I am going to play that evening maybe I will listen to an ECM album. There are times when I am too tired to stand listening to anything as well!
Did you take a break from your other works while preparing Persona?
Everything happened simultaneously since my music writing process is long. But I can say that I took a break before the studio recording. I focused on practicing on the piano on the last month in order to keep my condition high. I even practiced two days at MIAM in order to get used to the piano I would play on. Thankfully they allowed me.
Could you share a few details specific to the pieces? Can we suggest that some allude to your other areas of interest? For example, you seem to make a reference to emotions in Amigdala and Cornered…
There are pieces that are special to me, of course, even though I worked equally diligent on them all, I can share a few points about those I guess. As the album’s name suggests, I am interested in psychology and psychiatry. Amigdala is a word I learnt from this field; it is the part of our brain that fear and other instinctual functions stem from. I wrote the music accordingly, revolving around discrepancies and panic. As you said, Cornered is a little rebellious. On the other hand, Relic—might be my favorite piece in the album—and The Poet are ballads that are sort of a thanks to my mother and father, speaking in all honesty.
Let’s leave the rest for the listeners’ curiosity… Persona’s launch concert will take place on the 6th of February. What are your expectations and aims for the future?
I plan to write and prepare for Töz, our other project that I am proud to be a part of, after the 6th of February. There is a movie score I am currently writing, we will record it and then the movie will start showing at the cinemas. After all of these I hope that I will maybe start working on the next album of mine.
Thank you Ercüment. See you at the concerts and in new projects!
Ercüment Orkut, Persona, Lin Records (2018)
Ercüment Orkut (p), Matt Hall (b), Volkan Öktem (d)
Co-producers: Ercüment Orkut and Tamer Temel
Recording Engineer: Oğuz Öz; Recording Studio: MIAM Dr. Erol Üçer Müzik İleri Araştırmalar Merkezi; Mix and mastering: Jordi Vidal, Laietana Studio, Barcelona
Cover photo: Şükrü Apaydın; Photos and videos: Yalım Akın