We had the opportunity to have a long conversation with Cem Tuncer, who released his first solo album ‘Alright!’ through Lin Records on the 25th of October, before the first concert of this album. We talked about the album, the jazz scene, Cem Tuncer Quintet, education and festivals.
You are one of the best sidemen in Turkey. You are involved in many projects while writing scores for TV shows and films. Was there a reason that you waited this long for a solo project?
It is as they say, the tailor cannot sew his own clothes. Always working as a sideman, producer, writing music for shows and films… I am always in such a cycle of production but I didn’t do anything for myself as far as recording goes. But always going on creating. I probably have five or six albums’ worth of music by now. My friendship with Ricky Ford goes way back, we are all students of his. He came around quite often lately and we started talking. He was asking “When is your album coming out?”. We quickened things up. Actually my goal was to record this album when I am forty years old, I did it on my way to forty-one. I thought “I should do it” and I think things will quickly follow this. There are many things in storage already, my career will progress quickly from now on.
The real reason I wanted to conduct this interview was the name of the album. I really enjoyed seeing the phrase “Alriiiiiiight”, which we heard so many times from Neşet Ruacan and Sibel Köse during concerts, as the title of an album. Let’s hear about the importance and meaning of this phrase.
As you understand, this is a salute to jazz musicians in Turkey in a joking manner. It concerns jazz when you say “Alright!”. This is how we saw it from Neşet Ruacan and Deniz Dündar. It means great things are happening when you hear “Alriiiight!”. We wanted people to know about this inside joke. It is a show of respect to the doyens of Turkey. A salute fo the friends we play with on the stage and a joke to those who will follow us. It means a lot to us because it is a phrase used by our jazz musicians.
When did “Alriiiight!” first come about?
That legend belongs either to Deniz Dündar or Neşet Ruacan. Their friendship goes way back and they started playing around the same years, so we should ask them. I heard it from Neşet Ruacan because we spent a lot of time together. We also spent a lot of time with Deniz Dündar. I think it originated from them.
It makes one think about the newer phrase “Bravo Engin!”. You came up with it, didn’t you?
“Bravo Engin!” really became famous because of us. We started saying “Bravo Engin!” to everyone and about everything. It transcended the borders, it could be heard in other countries now. It started with Engin being a marvellous musician worthy of praise and became a sentence that we started telling everyone to show our appreciation. We say “Bravo Engin!” when Ediz Hafızoğlu plays something beautiful as well. It is a great inside joke.
We have to remember how long this quartet has been playing together and now has a solid formation. It has been the same since Bilgi University years, has it not? You are always together and not only on the stage. From sharing tables with musicians to travelling.
We are always together so we don’t only come together for music. We could spend 20 hours of the day together if we could. Volkan Hürsever is an amazing musician, everybody wants to play with him, he plays in many different projects. Ediz Hafızoğlu is amazing, everyone also wants to play with him. Engin Recepoğulları is “Bravo Engin!”. Me being busy is world-famous, therefore we give up our conversations to be able to play together. We then get together with a great longing. We get to converse on the stage most of the time. These friendships go way back many years. We share our lives with great sincerity and depth. This is probably visible on the stage, I can feel it reflected in our music. Because it isn’t easy to put on headphones and play something like this in the studio. You have to make music and it has to be great in the first go, I hope you find it great as well. This is a big stroke of luck, these kind of ensembles don’t always come together this way. You get together professionally, it could have financial reasons, but what would the friendship be like, how much of it would reflect upon the music; I don’t know about that. This is a great chance for me, we are thirty two teeth on the stage. This is how it is on the stage, we of course have tension that you don’t know about among us because we all take our jobs seriously. That is all for the sake of our music of course.
Ricky Ford was your teacher at Bilgi University. So was Volkan Hürsever.
I remember that Volkan used to give double bass lessons, not ensemble ones. We were friends with Volkan while he was teaching but started playing together a little later than that. Ediz is the oldest, and then Ricky. Then Engin and Volkan. Ricky Ford had a big band, I used to play with them when I was a student. He was my composition and big band arrangement teacher, we both played and wrote together. I learnt most of the things I know about writing music from him. Our friendship with him is interesting. We call him “uncle”. He is our friend, teacher and uncle. He is very fatherly, means well, welcoming, motivating and also is a great musician I think he is a founding father of this music. Therefore it is a great opportunity for musicians like us to be able to play with him. It is a great opportunity that he can relate to this subject as an American and a saxophone player who has played with legends like Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington and that he knows this music through that and can pass it onto us. He has a great perception of tradition as well as a modern outlook on music. He has a really interesting sense of humor while writing music, he shares everything with us and teaches us. He tells about some backstage memories you wouldn’t be able to hear elsewhere. Therefore he is a great treasure for us.
And you are the first Turkish musicians he has recorded an album with.
Yes this is the first time he recorded such an album and played as a sideman.
“The most important showcase of an educational institute are artistic branches.”
It becomes inevitable to touch upon the subject of music education while talking about these. Bilgi University used to be the place to do this in your time. The education you received and the teachers you worked with were amazing; most of the active musicians in the scene have graduated from Bilgi. What do you think about the current situation of music education in Turkey?
I got enrolled in 1998 and graduated in 2002. Bilgi University actively went on for another 10 years after that.
We cannot expect schools to be able to continue as a tradition when a country’s educational and artistic policies are not well-founded. Luckily we have many old conservatoires in different genres, they raise great classical musicians. We sadly couldn’t be deep-rooted about jazz education. This music didn’t receive the best treatment in private schools due to financial concerns. A great future could have been waiting for us if it was continued, even the financial aspect would have stopped being a source or worry. It would have great demand. They were a bit hasty about that. The most important showcase of an educational institute are artistic branches. The theater, music, painting and sculpture departments in a university are its sources of advertisement. What makes a university what it is are the main branches of art, that’s why I hope for such great things in the future. What is sad is that we have a fancy diploma. It says “Bachelor of Arts” and has many correlations abroad. The diploma has the signatures of the dean at the time and many esteemed people. But that place doesn’t exist twenty years later. Berklee College of Music isn’t like that, that’s the difference. We learnt well, acquired great knowledge, had a great time as a student and we are using the advantages. But when you look back, the school where I graduated from doesn’t exist anymore. It won’t exist. This wouldn’t happen in America, England or Germany. You graduate from Oxford, and then Oxford closes down. Or the economy department you graduated from closes down. I doubt you would hear such a thing. Is it possible for us to do this? Of course, we would fully commit to this if it is taken seriously, and is done for the long run with no possibility of closing down. But nobody would want to spend any effort if it is to close down in three or ten years. People like Ali Perret, Can Kozlu and Neşet Ruacan taught with all they had, giving a world-class education. It would have been great if people who could play at least at our level were to graduate every year. That is why governments should have culture/arts policies and support such things. A single school cannot be responsible at this point. We talk a lot on this because it is a sore subject, of course.
Going back to the album… The album process started with you playing together on tour. Then you stepped into the studio.
The music was ready. I looked at the arrangements again when I decided on the band members. I wrote some new pieces for this project as well. There is a Ricky Ford piece since he is featured; 7 Reggae Forde. Actually, our goal was to play a duet with him but then we ended up being a quintet. He thankfully didn’t let us down and played with joy. We warmed the project up on the road, we played at Bova, DasDas and Gaga Play in Ankara. We went to Hayyam Studios for two days after this tiny tour. Every piece was played only once and you are hearing them with all their pros and cons in the album.
And Alright was put in Spotify’s State of Jazz playlist. You are the first Turkish artist to be included in this list, are you not? We all felt really proud when we saw it.
I believe so. I saw the names of Keith Jarrett, Avishai Cohen and Brad Mehldau. It is an important list with 300-400 thousand followers.
The album was released by Lin Records. Ediz Hafızoğlu’s label.
Yes, we released it through Ediz’s label. I also have a music company as well. I mostly released film and TV show scores from that, there are about ten albums and the company is co-owned by Ercüment Orkut. We could have released it as well but there is a certain order of things on shelves. Lin Records focuses on jazz and my label has a following of film music. That’s why we made this decision and Ediz is like a brother to me. I hope this album will benefit him as well. It is going well, it is receiving a lot of support. Its promotion is great. It is important for a label to support this, it isn’t only about releasing the album. Lin is constantly on the follow and Ediz knows these things well.
There must be a story to each piece. But is there a single piece you can say “this one is very important”?
Babushka is important for us, for example. I wrote it for my late grandmother. My grandmother passed away the day following our recording of the piece, just as we were about to play it for the first time during a festival. It was an interesting day. Birds were flying above us, just like they say “She showed up as a bird”. It has such an atmosphere and memory for me. There is a blues piece I wrote for my daughter Zeynep: ZT Blues. We used a sample of her own voice at the end of the piece, it will be important for her, it has a good memory. Imagine, you aren’t yet a year old but you are featured in an album. That album ends up in interesting playlists and is listened to by all sorts of people. It is a great opportunity, our mothers and fathers didn’t do such things.
“There is no place for fascism in music”
You are all active in different genres, the band members have worked with different musicians and recorded different albums. You are mentally open to this.
I believe music is a singular life style. It doesn’t matter what you play if you are a musician It is about dedicating your life to be able to make music. Therefore it is a single goal: being a musician, living as a musician, producing great things, leading a life that will motivate you to play. The genre played doesn’t matter. Why would there be fascism saying it should be this or that? Watch me say everything is jazz as long as you do your job well and sincerely.
And jazz is such a beautiful thing that the attention it receives is well justified. There might not be a need for another genre if it is truly lived and played in its real sense. It is such a inclusive, powerful and nourishing genre, a movement on its own that it is unbelievable. It actually is integral, supportive and accepting. It is a way of living. That is why it’s all about “jazz, jazz, jazz”. Learning it and its education last for a lifetime, the atmosphere is different every time you take it to the stage, it creates excitement and stories. Independent of its era, it may be acid, modern, swing, manouché… Because they all come from the same place and share the same excitement. Its concern is entirely different. What Ediz plays with Ceza is jazz, what Neşet Ertaş plays is also jazz. It all depends on how you perceive it. They all have the same concern. It is all the same as long as it is done sincerely.
There is always an argument about what is jazz and who has mastery over it in the jazz scene. It is an argument as old as the history of the genre. Nowadays an attack from the Marsalis family is against innovative and eclectic musicians. You will remember what happened with Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington. What are your opinions on this?
I can perceive that subject differently compared to a listener, being a musician myself. However, I don’t know if I would like to open that up to discussion. Especially when people in the same lane as us are concerned… It seems possible to allude to another lane. Wynton or Branford Marsalis are main characters in this scene, yes, but why couldn’t Kamasi Washington also be one? He could have played traditionally, his musical knowledge is really deep and wide as well. But maybe he doesn’t want to play like you do. I don’t think that is up for discussion. There is no place for fascism in music, I cannot accept that. “He knows more sentences”, “he knows less”, I don’t know… Maybe you are playing a really interesting music with only two sentences. Miles Davis doesn’t play as if he knows many sentences. But he plays serious jazz. Maybe those things mean to shake things up, to get things moving, nobody moves for no reason. Maybe it is a production wonder, maybe there are unknown things in the background, I don’t think anybody would say something like that for no reason.
What do you think about the idea that the music should represent the era it is made in?
This could be analyzed in the specifics of projects. For example there is a manouché project we frequently come across lately. They embody the 20s-60s eras with their outfits and style, allude to the 40s-70s. I don’t see a problem with coming up with such a project and playing the music as it was played back in the day in 2019. Because that is what the project entails, they want to play like that. Our music corresponds to what is called ‘the mainstream’ wave. It does so because that’s how we want to play it. But maybe we were doing electronic music with another band here. Are we an electronic music band or a mainstream one? Nobody would get confused if these situations are viewed on project-basis, there could be no wrongdoing. If the project is telling a story, if it is done well, it should be called a project; sometimes it is too easy to give things that name.
How about politically?
The music of a musician who reads the news in the morning, has bombs explode on his street in the evening will naturally be affected. Music doesn’t necessarily respond as a protest in this case, neither does it have to say “let me tell you about the woes of my country”. That pain is bound to show up in the music. People who aim to produce pieces with a public awareness wouldn’t ponder too much. It would be dedicated to something, that’s another thing. And it cannot be expected that a musician living abroad would have the same reflexes as I do. The fire that shows up in everybody’s personal work is different, but it inevitable shows up anyway.
I am seeing a common reaction from musicians against the terms “jazz” and “festival” these days. Their number increased a lot especially this year, and their sustainability and content are constant topics of discussion. Are you one of those who approach this subject with doubt?
I have been seeing an increasing number of “jazz festivals”. It got my attention this summer, I think there are about 20 new jazz festivals. It should be analyzed whether the content of some of these festivals are jazz when they carry the name. You see musicians of different genres when you look at the line-up. I am not worried about having big stages and big names involved. I am only trying to draw attention to the fact that the content shouldn’t be confusing. The organizers can justify including a n unrelated band simply due to its popularity and to relieve some of the financial stress on the festival by including audiences of other genres as well. But it doesn’t seem that way from the outside. It is unfair on the musicians. And did you know that this is a hot topic everywhere in the world? In Pori Jazz Festival, Montreux Jazz Festival as well.
Could their name be different, for example?
Yes. Why not call it a singer/songwriter festival? Call it that and allow everyone to freely perform. Why can’t it be a “music festival”? Our pop musicians play at Harbiye Open air theater. Yes, it is saturated now. How about inviting jazz musicians to jazz festivals? Or change its name to “music festival”. Nobody would bat an eye. You try to benefit from a cool name such as jazz festival while not staying true to the genre when it comes to the content. Why do you want to make a jazz festival? Is it really prestigious, that’s what I am curious about. Of course, I would like to have lots of places to play at, countless jazz festivals; we could play and create all the time. There wouldn’t be anyone happier than us about this but we are also the ones criticizing this at the moment. There is something wrong here. How can we help to solve this confusion? They could consult and ask us about it. There could be more interviews, more visibility in the press. Why aren’t jazz musicians musical directors, for example? Why don’t we see a single person involved with jazz in most of the committees? For example, I have been a part of such things. I have spent a lot of effort in the foundation of Alanya Jazz Festival. I wasn’t invited once, but that’s a different topic. Please include jazz musicians in the organization if you want to call a festival a jazz festival. I am not saying that the jazz musician should be involved with the finances. He could be the director, or the go-to person for ideas and suggestions. We invite a guest every month for TRT Big Band and we choose the musicians who will play with us and suggest them to TRT. It could work this way. Don’t we also know how to make this more financially rich by bringing more people in? Therefore they should leave this to knowledgable people. At least the content would be right, the name would be correct. Let’s leave jazz out of it and everyone would relax.
Alright! , featuring Engin Recepoğulları, Ricky Ford, Cem Tuncer, Volkan Hürsever and Ediz Hafızoğlu, is available on online platforms and shelves. My personal suggestion is that you listen to the tenth and last piece in the album, Giant In Love. Listening to John Coltrane played by Engin Recepoğulları is always a special experience. The album draws to a beautiful end with this piece which is a nod off to Giant Steps as this marvellous band is accompanied by Ricky Ford. Enjoy listening to this album, as we are hoping for many concerts of it.