Erkan Zeki Ar is a talented Turkish musician below 30. He actually graduated with a degree in sociology, but earns a living with his music. He has been performing regularly in various clubs with his trio. I listened to Erkan for the first time about 2-3 years ago in a workshop Dave Allen, a jazz guitarist who resided in Turkey at the time, gave called “Jazz Improvization Workshop”. He played 2 jazz standards during the workshop but after 2 years I got to listen to his own compositions for the first time while he was accompanied by the musicians he also recorded the album with; Eren Turgut on the bass and Mert Can Bilgin on the drums. I believe we will listen to Erkan on jazz stages with his mature disposition and compositions for many years to come and wanted to introduce his first album Kontrast, released in February 2018, which consists of 7 of his own compositions. Enjoy the interview below.
Erkan could you tell us about yourself and your history with music? How did you start playing the guitar? How did you get involved with jazz? Who did you initially listen to and who influenced your music?
Hi! First I would like to thank Jazz Dergisi family for giving me this opportunity. I have been listening to music for as long as I can remember, but I started playing an instrument during my high school years. A band was being formed in our year when I was a freshman and they needed a guitarist. I had been wanting to play for a while and I bought my first guitar when I heard the news. I will never forget, it was a rainy day and I got soaking wet trying to protect the guitar from the rain. I tried to learn my instrument with the help of the internet and the information I gathered from those around me. I mainly played rock pieces in that period and I didn’t have any technical knowledge.
I got involved with jazz and started to learn about the technical aspects of the music when I was in college. I went to my first jazz concert at Nardis Jazz Club, thanks to a valuable friend. It is hard to put what I felt that day into words. Neşet Ruacan was playing the guitar and it was the first time I was witnessing the guitar used in such a way. Of course, I had crossed paths with jazz before but listening to this genre live fundamentally provoked me. I gave my heart to jazz since that day and started to work towards this goal. I have to mention two names in the process: Nezih Yeşilnil and Dave Allen. The both contributed a lot to me during specific periods of my life.
I started working on the jazz classics. I learnt the well-known standards. I first learnt about jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Dexter Gordon and Miles Davis. Of course this list got longer as the years passed by and it still keeps getting longer. It is really enjoyable immersing oneself in such a deep-rooted tradition, because there are so many musicians and music to research and to discover.
Sociology has its foundations in human relationships and it requires a high level of empathy in order to be able to analyze behaviors and people. Did having a sociology degree affect your music (as in it helped with analyzing events better and expressing them with your music?
Generally speaking, I believe that dealing with the social sciences require a higher level of empathy and curiosity about human relationships when compared to the natural sciences.I chose sociology in order to improve myself on this subject. I never made a living out of my sociology degree, but I can say that it was one of the best choices I have ever made in my life. I got to develop a reliable reasoning system that is open to improvement due to my education. And of course this affects my life along with my music. It has been a while since I received my degree but I still consult this reasoning system and will do so for many years to come I guess. The musical aspect of this concerns the philosophy of the music. Because I believe music doesn’t only consist of notes and mathematical scales. Music is an attitude and a way of thinking. Thinking about these aspects of music gives me the opportunity to feel it more and to internalize it.
How do the compositions come about?
This question is a bit hard to answer because I don’t have a designated method. But I usually write my compositions through improvization. This is why jazz is so special to me. Because even though you are a “performer”, you also constantly have to be a composer in jazz. This is due to the space jazz allows the musician to express themselves. What I do is picking some ideas from my improvizations and working on them. I think this is invaluable to being a musician as well as giving birth to musical pieces.
How did you decide to record your own album? How did you realize that it was the right time?
I intended to make an album for many years. I have been writing compositions for about 4-5 years. But I started to work on this after the trio was formed. We were given some opportunities in time and we used these. But this is a long and ambiguous process, so I cannot really give you specific dates. Because this process was made possible by several factors working together positively.
How was the Trio formed? I think it is very valuable to play with the same people for a long time, it isn’t easy; you have to understand one another, be in harmony, support each other, be honest to each other and accept critique, you have to be able to move together and so on, there are many dynamics in this. I think Eren and Mert are harmonious people already, but how did you guys find each other and decide to walk the same path?
I really agree with the fact that it is very valuable to play with the same people for a long time. Because friendships form during this process and even though it isn’t a requirement, it is still very valuable and important when making music together. I met Mert Can two and a half years ago. We met during a jam sessions at Mitanni when I was sick and played really badly. I met Eren while playing for a band İpek Göztepe formed a year and a half ago. We got together with Mert and Eren during some other projects. It was very useful in getting to know each other to have played for other people together before forming our trio.
The Trio was formed in the beginning of 2017. I had already been planning to play my compositions with a band, though deciding with whom to play with was a sensitive subject. I cared more about what kind of music these musicians would crate when they were given the space, instead of their technical knowledge and virtuosity. Mert and Eren were the perfect musicians for the music I envisioned. I called them and they gave positive replies. We gave our first concert at The Badau on 6 April 2017 and I am so glad that we did. Since that day, we worked together on finalizing the compositions while we gave concerts. The helped me so much both musically and mentally during this process. I understood that I have been walking the path with the right people after the album was released. I want to send them my love after talking so much about them, so grateful for your existence.
The title of the album is “Kontrast” and its cover has a fitting black and white contrasted photograph. Does this have a meaning?
Kontrast is actually a detox and a beginning album for me. I hurried into releasing the album because my ideas kept changing very fast due time. This album is a selection of the compositions I wrote in the past two years. And it embodies some contrasting elements in musical and spiritual aspects as could be understood. My aesthetic perception, habits and many other things have changed in my life during this process. I wanted to materialize this period of my life musically and then move on. Because if I did this a year later, some of these compositions may never see the light of day. Shortly put, Kontrast was a page I had to close in order to start one anew. The album’s title comes from the fact that I see this page as a combination of contrasting qualities.
How is your relationship with guitar effects? Do you use them often and if so, which ones?
I am not very competent in these effects. I have liked simpler and basic tones for a long time. Of course, my opinions about this are slowly changing. I want to achieve different tones and I already started my research. But the setup that I used during the album recording and while making this sort of music consists of an amplifier with bass characteristics and reverb-delay pedals. I find it entertaining to try to change the guitar tone with touch. I repeated this same attitude in the album except for the post-production phase.
What do you listen to? Who and what are your sources of influence?
I really just listen to whatever sounds good to me. Limiting myself with one genre doesn’t do me any good in the long run. I play pop and jazz already because I play in various other projects and I am really happy about this. I think playing and listening to different genres improve the musical perspective. Because ultimately music is an expression of specific feelings and the genres are merely different ways to express these feelings.
My answer would be “everything” when speaking about my influences. Sometimes the time I spend with my family, sometimes the music I listen to and sometimes a memory influence me. I don’t see influence as a divine intervention. I think it is a catalyzing agent that morphs experiences. I usually think about the radio as a metaphor. Sometimes you come across embers of fire as you jump from station to station and things are set ablaze. That is why I believe it isn’t necessary to look for influences only in music; one only needs to keep his perception open and keep searching.
Do you have a working or practice routine?
My routines are formed by my needs. I focus on technical practices when I feel lacking technically, and focus on philosophic practices when I feel inadequate in that aspect. Because I think music is a combination of these two in the general sense. Sometimes an essay can improve me, and sometimes it is a musical sentence that I transcribed. I think dynamism is good in this sense, I feel like I am in a vicious cycle otherwise.
You had an om tattoo. Do you practice yoga or meditation?
Yes I have an om tattoo. I got done to remind me of a specific period of my life. I don’t usually practice meditation but I have a thought system that I developed myself. I do some thinking exercises when I feel lost or stressed. My thoughts become clearer in this process and I can more easily move about.
Who are your favorite jazz composers?
The first names I think of are Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Gilad Hekselman, Pat Metheny, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
“Oddbilgin” is an interesting name for a piece, what is its meaning?
The foundation of “Oddbilgin” actually goes back to the day we played with Deniz Özçelik. Mert has always been interested in the concept of odd time. We sometimes talk about harmonics occasionally. One day he told me four chords to play during the soundcheck. I wrote a composition with those chords that evening. The piece came to be called “Oddbilgin” because of this.
When we view the album as a whole, could we say it is a “contemplating album”? Dark tones and mid-tempos and ballads are favored.
Yes the album generally is rather calm and dark. I wanted it to be relatively compact. The pieces all go in different directions during the concerts anyways. I think it makes a good reference point to keep it as simple as possible in the album.
What are your plans for the future? Do you have a timeframe in your head for the second album?
I want to give more concerts and participate in festivals with my own project in the future. I have already started working on the second album already. The pieces mostly are ready as drafts but they all need to be rewritten and arranged. Because I want to expand the orchestra for the second album. If everything goes according to plan the album will be released around these times next year. I want to make one album every year.
When and where is the soonest the listeners can hear you performing?
We have an album launch concert at Nardis Jazz Club on the 13th of March.