Cenk Esen is the younger son of Randy and Aydın Esen. Born in 1999, Cenk started to play the piano at 9, but he took a more serious interest in the instrument after participating in “Umbria Jazz Clinics” organized by Berklee in Perugia in Italy when he was 16 years old. The musician graduated with a degree in piano performance from Berklee and got the opportunity to work with masters such as John Patitucci, Dave Liebman, Terri Lyne Carrington and George Garzone at “Global Jazz Institute”, founded and directed by Danilo Perez. Esen released an EP consisting of 3 pieces in 2019 and worked with musicians such as Daniel Guerrette, Tomaki Sanders and Miles Burger in this project. He also released“Red Planet”, the first EP of the project called “Portrait and a Dream” with Mehmet Ali Şimaylı, Yiğit Can Öztop and Kerem Can Dündar. The musician, who has released another EP consisting of 2 tracks in 2020, has now released his first album “It’s a Family Thing” in June 2021 on digital platforms. We can call this a family album, looking at the musicians accompanying Cenk Esen. Cenk plays the piano, synth bass, Rhodes and electronic sound effects and he did the mixing of several tracks himself. When we look at the “credits” section of the album, we see that this album features musicians who can easily multi-function. I don’t know how many times I listened to it on a loop but it is impossible to get bored of this album. Make sure to listen to it, great music is good for you!
Cenk how are you? How did you deal with the pandemic period? I believe you are in London?
Hi Elif, thank you, everything is going well. I was in my last term at Berklee when the pandemic started, I found myself in a plane to Istanbul on the evening when I was supposed to play my first concert in New York… I was in Istanbul until September, I finished my courses online and then moved to London, but I always try to pass through Turkey and America.
We have been listening to you mainly in projects the past couple of years, you released EPs with different projects, this might have worked like a preparation process for this album?
The EPs were really helpful in a musical and logistic sense while preparing for “It’s a Family Thing”, but the real factor that played into the birth of this album was the pandemic. I actually promised myself that I wouldn’t release music under my name for at least five years upon the release of “Phases” (for my own musical growth and development)… For someone whose biggest passion is playing live, it was really hard to face the reality that concerts and musical/social interactions were done with. I kept asking myself how to face this and develop my music in these conditions. The answer to that was to “release more music”!
How did the compositions come to creation? Did you have a lot of time to work on the arrangements for the album? I don’t believe they are all composed by you? Who wrote the lyrics and how? Can you give some details about the album’s creation process?
I can say that each piece has a different story! Even though all the pieces were born within the musical environment I have been in the last couple of years, the planning of the album started in February. First two tracks “Wear it” and “Son Zamanlar” feature my dear friend Jasper Williamson from Berklee, we took a look at these two pieces when I was in Boston last December. I thought of Şam, a Turkish rapper I respect dearly, when I listened to the incredible drumming groove Jasper played in “Son Zamanlar”. I played the keyboards and took part in the production of Şam’s soon to be released album P.İ.Ç. He got excited when he heard “Son Zamanlar” and wrote the lyrics the same day. We recorded the vocals with Şam and my amazing singer friend Leyla Huysal at Babajim Studios when I was in Turkey in March.
“Joyride” came about when I was jamming with my drummer/composer friend Mehmet Ali Şimayli when I was in Istanbul last year. I found a video a year later by coincidence from that day and I loved the loop. And the rest came from my father, mother and Berke! Even though I wrote all the pieces in the album except for “Selim” (written by Kerem Can Dündar), it was my family and friends who helped transform the idea into composition. I met Kerem Can at Berklee the first week when I moved to Boston in 2017 and I respect him greatly both as a musician and as a friend. Therefore including the piece he has written for his brother made me really happy. Mehmet Ali Şimayli, with whom I have come to respect and work with in many projects, plays the drums in “Selim”.
The only other piece with lyrics in the album other than “Son Zamanlar” is “Storms”. Bade sings the lyrics which I wrote with the beloved and respected Turkish musician Kenan Doğulu in March. I would like to thank Kenan Doğulu from the bottom of my heart for all his help in this track and his support for the album. My brother Aykan did the production for everything in the piece except for the keyboard and really made it sound great.
“Interlude (for Glasper)” and “Family” are two pieces from my time at Berklee. ‘Interlude’ is from a session in 2019 and ‘Family’ is from 2018… We did some extra production and additions to the latter with my father. These two pieces have a special place because they were initially recorded with my phone. Saygın Özatmaca, who did the mastering for the whole album, did an incredible job here and created a high-quality sound that is unique, there was no way of releasing the album without him!
The inspiration for “Narcissus” naturally comes from Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus”, a piece I absolutely love. I played an arrangement of this live at Istanbul Babylon with a project called Mysthree that I was a part of and the electric piano, synth bass and some pads are live recordings from that concert. Aykan and Berker Banar created incredible beats on these last year and sent the piece off to a different planet, and my incredible guitarist friend İzel Mori brought his incredible touch on the final version, he honored me!
We did “Yag Wu” together with my Mysthree bandmate Yağmur Gökçelik who recorded my EP “Glacier” released last December. My close friend Yusuf Huysal brought the colors of his guitar to the piece…
The team is rather crowded. Most of them are your close friends, can we say “friends are family”?
Absolutely! The opportunities to create artistic sharing and interaction has greatly decreased in the past year and half and people were pushed into isolation. The message I want this album to give; no matter how negative and bleak the situation might be, it is necessary to always continue artistic sharing and interactions, otherwise we are in danger of finding ourselves in a static spot socially and artistically.
I think your mother has an incredible life energy as far as I know and hear. What is it like to play the same instrument as your father? I think your brother did the mixing of most of the pieces in the album. What are the pros and cons of belonging to a family of musicians?
My family has always supported me in every direction I chose in life, I never downplay how lucky I have been in a musical sense. Playing the same instrument with my father is the biggest part of this luck. He always encourages me to make my own choices and sound even though he is at such an elevated and unique level artistically. I had the opportunity to work with very different people during my education but I haven’t seen someone so high up there as him.
I performed live with my mother in recent years, when I came to Istanbul I accompanied a project she started with Kerem Can Dündar back when I was in Berklee. I learnt many things about what to pay attention to while playing with vocalists and when there are no drums or bass. There isn’t anything more valuable than doing what you love the most with people you love the most…
Aykan did the mixing and production for five tracks in the album including “Narcissus” and “Storms”. He studied Music Production and Sound Engineering at Pointblank Music School in London and he currently works at Attack Magazine and prepared articles and videos for them. He is also an important addition to the microphone company called Vochlea. There isn’t anybody else but him and Saygın that I trust more in creating the right sounds.
Most of the pieces have electronic infrastructures. I think you also listen to electronic music? I think London is the right city for this, is that correct?
When people ask me questions like ‘what kind of music do you make’, my answer usually is electronic music with improvisatory elements (or vice versa). I heard pieces that I remember to be “Light Years”, “Extinction” and “Toys for All Gods” from my father’s studio late at night as I was sleeping in my room as a young kid. I think these influenced me greatly unconsciously, but listening to Aphex Twin, Floating Points, Authecre, Moodymann, Kamaal Williams and Max Graef during my college years also helped immensely. Electronic elements in projects and musicians such as Weather Report, Yussef Kamaal and Robert Glasper showed me that electronic and modern elements SHOULD ALWAYS be included in music. The fact that these people we all near London or nearby European cities was vital in my decision to move to England. I learnt a lot from Yağmur while working on the EP called “part of me is still human” with Mysthree and from my brother Aykan.
What new music have you been listening to lately? Can you make some recommendations?
I have been listening to a lot of projects I am a part of because they are about to be released, it is an important part of the process in making the final decisions during mixing and mastering, but I would like to share some albums that have influenced me in recent years!!
Weather Report – “Heavy Weather” & “Black Market” albums
Arnold Schoenberg – 5 Pieces for Orchestra (Op. 16), 6 Little Piano Pieces (Op. 19) & Violin Concerto (Op.36)
Aydın Esen – “Dialogo”, “Timescape” albums and this year’s “Fly”
Kris Davis – “Duopoly” and “Capricorn Climber” albums
Aphex Twin – “Syro” and “Selected Ambient Works” albums
Herbie Hancock – “Mr. Hands” and “Empyrean Isles” albums
Henri Dutilleux – “Metaboles” isimli eseri ve Cello Concerto (‘Tout un Monde Lointain’)
John Coltrane – “A Love Supreme” and “Interstellar Space” albums
Miles Davis – “Filles de Kilimanjaro”, “E.S.P” and “Kind of Blue” albums.
Yussef Kamaal – “Black Focus”
Moonchild – “Voyager”
Kendrick Lamar – “To Pimp a Butterfly”, “Damn” albums
Hank Mobley – “Soul Station”
Anton Webern – 6 Bagatelles for String Quartet (Op.9) & 3 Pieces for Piano and Cello (Op.11)
There are many more to list, I had a hard time stopping myself!
Since the pandemic is over and the venues are slowly opening, what are your new projects? Any news about concerts?
Opportunities to play together are coming about again in London with the opening of many venues. I got to play several concerts with local musicians I met here in the recent months. It looks like I will be playing at a festival in London with my close friend Romarna Campbell from Berklee. There are some possibilities in Istanbul and other cities in Turkey in September, I will share these as they finalize.
The main thing I am focused on is to get a project I had in mind for a long time going… The band will play 4 or 5 pieces that consist of my own compositions. The pieces are ready, we are waiting for the world to get back in order!