Mehmet Polat – Musical Journeys and existing through music

Treme Sidewalk Steppers 2ndline February 6th 2011

I feel like I have to start this post with a disclaimer as there’s been a much longer pause in publishing activity here than usual – not that I’ve ever been extremely active. Most of my free time in the last couple of years has gone into a project I will certainly come back to here as well. Most of this article was written nearly half a year ago after the concert I discuss here. At the time of writing these words, I’ve sat in Corona self-quarantine for two weeks. Luckily I don’t have any health issues but it has thrown me off my – already delicate – routines.

The present pandemic also puts the below article in a different perspective. In this time of severe travel and movement restrictions, music and other arts can offer us precious means of ‘travelling’ to distant places and experience cultures and people from far without risking contagion. We  could call this ‘virtual’ – see my previous discussions of virtuality – but at the present moment that might be as real as it gets. The other topic of this article, ‘existing through music’ or ‘musical being in the world’ can also be helpful during this time of crisis. As we practice social distancing – even isolation –  the social aspect of engaging in musical activities, whether listening, making, learning, teaching music (the latter two most likely online) or something else, becomes more apparent. Many are already habitually using music to regulate their emotional states and help them e.g. ‘be sad in a certain way’. During this period music can help us remain connected to the world outside, to ‘musically be in the world’.

I’ll elaborate on the above thoughts later, but now a glimpse of the pre-Corona world in the hope that the post-Corona world still allows us experience and appreciate musical journeys and experiences in real social environments.

Bassist on stage

Recently I had the pleasure of hearing the internationally acclaimed Oud player Mehmet Polat with his new band Embracing Colours in Bimhuis, Amsterdam.

Music – like all art forms – is very personal to its creators, even if artists are not always very explicit about it as they might want to leave it for the listeners/viewers to find their own meanings and references in art. Polat, however, was rather explicit about the personal dimensions of his music and that’s what I’d like to discuss here.

Musical ontology

Polat’s introductions to his compositions were mostly quite personal and even biographical. At some point he mentioned that he ‘exist[s] through music’. This is an interesting philosophical statement that I won’t get into any deeper here but refer you to my earlier discussions regarding Martin Heidegger’s phenomenology and musical ontology in Hindu philosophy. In his discussion of music as identity the musicologist Simon Frith speaks of ‘musical-being-in-the-world’. Although he doesn’t cite Heidegger, I think his view is a musical application of Heidegger’s ‘being-in-the-world’. According to Hindu philosophy the universe consists of sound, which is perhaps slightly more literal ‘existence through music’ than Polat had in mind 😉

Polat is by no means the only musician to think in these terms. Below is a talk with the jazz guitarist Pat Metheny who (from 26’20”) talks at lenght of ‘way of being as a musician’.

Musical journeys

During the evening Polat frequently reflected on translating his life experiences into music. For the present discussion I’d like to draw a comparison with another Oud player Dhafer Youssef, although not in any normative sense as they’re both unquestionably masters of their instruments as well as resourceful composers and skilful band leaders. Both musicians started their musical journeys by immersing into their native musical traditions and later encountering and exploring other traditions resulting in intriguing combinations.

Polat has not only innovated on the instrumental technique as well as the construction of his instrument to serve his artistic needs; he also has a unique talent for working with musical materials of other cultures and have a musical dialogue with them. In such dialogues, he – together with the other musicians – explores these musical materials from his own background and roots in the Anatolian folk and Ottoman classical music.

Cross-cultural instrumentation

The Embracing Colours project is a jazz band with drums, double bass and accordion. Polat is of course not the first one to play the Oud with a jazz rhythm section. The best known today is probably the Tunisian Dhafer Youssef who has for a long time had a similar group but with piano instead of accordion. The choice of instrumentation has quite significant repercussions to the musical possibilities available for the groups. While Arab music – like most musics of the world – has repertoire that can be played on Western instruments, it does entail sacrificing some of the tonal richness of the musical culture. The micro-tonal maqamat are difficult to perform on instrumentation with fixed intonation. Youssef’s choice is to avoid the micro-tonal maqamat, whereas Polat has cleverly arranged his music so that the accordion doesn’t clash with the micro-tones he plays on the Oud. The Mozaiek Ensemble I have discussed previously also managed to arrange their music to combine piano and micro-tonal maqama.

Cultural encounters

Cultural encounters always require negotiations on various levels to reach mutual understanding – or harmony, which in this context is not a musical term. Musicians are often inspired by each others’ music and musical cultures. Depending on their aspirations and understanding of the musical cultures they’re involved with the results may vary from mere exotic flavour borrowed – or stolen, a.k.a cultural appropriation – from another culture to exciting mixes of and dialogues between different musical cultures.

No music no life

I’ve earlier briefly discussed how The Beatles – especially George Harrison – were inspired and influenced by Indian music. Even earlier the usual Western response to music from other parts of the world was to view them as primitive (see also my earlier discussion of primitivism in early jazz criticism). The first attempts of the British colonialists to engage with Indian music was to harmonize it as they viewed it as lacking this musical dimension – central to much Western music, but much less so in many other musics of the world. Power relations in cultural encounters may result in cultural appropriation. In music, this risk is greatest with agents in prominent positions in the music industry.

Polat’s and Youssef’s different approaches to music-making and their own musical roots speak volumes of their respective musical journeys. While Polat has immersed himself and draws from the musical heritage of his home region and other cultures in the region, Youssef had his formative musical experiences at a young age in his native Tunisia but paid his musical dues in the jazz scene of Vienna.

It would be too simplistic to try to draw any straight correlations between Polat’s and Youssef’s backgrounds and their musical expressions. It is, however, interesting to observe the musical journeys of these artists.

Specifically, my interest here is the relation Polat’s and Youssef’s musics have to jazz as some of their music is characterized as jazz or jazz-influenced. I have earlier discussed jazz as Black music. However, jazz has ‘gone global’ already a long time ago and there are various local jazz traditions and different kinds of fusions and hybrids with other musical cultures.

While Polat’s and Youssef’s musics don’t use musical elements of jazz in terms of melodic materials (blues) or the characteristic triple based swing of jazz as already mentioned, they opt using the rhythm section of jazz. While bass and drum set are nowadays common across genres, it’s good to keep in mind in this context that this form of ensemble playing started in the Storyville district of New Orleans in the early days of jazz at the turn of the 20th century. Jazz musicians at those times adopted their repertoire to the audiences they played for. This legacy lives on with contemporary jazz musicians who are typically rather versatile stylistically, even if they specialize on, or prefer, playing in certain styles or (sub)genres. Polat’s and Youssef’s ensembles consist of these kinds of musicians brought together for the specific projects that mark the musical journeys of these artists.

Jacob Collier

Jacob Collier in his music room

I recently came a cross this amazing talent in a newsletter email highlighting an upcoming Quincy Jones’ concert with Mr Collier accompanied by raving endorsements by Jones and other top jazz performers of our time such as Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. The introduction of this rising star mentioned that he’s a successful YouTuber so naturally I looked him up. And here’s what I came across first.

That really blew my mind! It’s easy to hear why he’s received such praise. Not only does young Mr Collier has some very interesting and fresh sounding harmonic, melodic and rhythmic ideas but he’s also found his own way of expressing them – his performance style, if you will. And listen to the way he builds up this old classic first with rather traditional, although extended, harmonies and (more) conventional rhythms and saving his more unique ideas later on in the performance. I.e. he doesn’t go straight for the “acrobatics”, but first bows to the tradition before springing from it to his own adventurous exploration of the song.

In this age of fast flying YouTube stars and child prodigies Mr Collier shows not only musical maturity – at the age of 19 – but he’s put considerable effort and thought into his presentation. His videos are very well produced with fine audio and video quality and skilful editing. He even creates slightly different personages for the many “Jacobs” singing the multiple parts. They each have a unique attire and different hairstyle (although, frankly, he’s not much of a stylist 😉 ). What I especially like is that he moves his head in rhythm with the particular voice he’s singing making it easier for the listener to recognise which of the Jacobs is singing which part.

Technology and/in performance

After my university studies I was sketching a plan for a PhD research on music and technology, especially in the ways various technologies are used in live music performance. Collier seems to be interested in this topic as well and searching for technological means to express his musical ideas.

I recommend listening to this one with heaphones or well positioned speakers to experience the live mixing.

What I find especially intriguing in this video that Collier actually demonstrates us what DJs do when they mix records and samples and manipulate them live. Only Collier produces all the “samples” himself, live. In an interview he has indeed mentioned that honing his performance solo practices is one of is major goals. For this end he’s already got a project with MIT lined up. I’m very curious to hear and see the fruits of that endeavour!

In the above interview Collier makes an interesting comment about his predilection to acoustic piano against various keyboards and synthesisers. That’s an approach of a musician as a craftsman in the traditional sense. Playing acoustic instruments gives one a whole different sense of “doing” and control of the sounds one produces. Getting the desired sound(s) out of an acoustic instrument also requires sufficient technical command on it. On a keyboard, synthesiser, or some other “post-mechanical” instrument, the sound is much more – if not entirely – predetermined and the player merely triggers it with a press of a key or hitting the electric drum. Of course technique is still required to make music with such instruments but more towards executing than producing the music.

Collier’s choices of instruments are eclectic and apparently arise from his upbringing in a family of musicians and abundant and varied musical activities from an early age (see the interview linked to above). He has a particular preference to melodica, an instrument originally designed for educational use. In Collier’s hands this simple instrument doesn’t seem to lack anything but is able to rise for the musical occasion at hand. Outside his music room he also makes use of its portability and e.g. joins the horn section of Snarky Puppy and walks to the soloist’s mic to take his solo in the manner of horn players.

Talent in the Internet age

As mentioned above, Jacob Collier really stands out among the YouTube child prodigies playing e.g. classical piano, guitar or conducting an orchestra at a young age. While this comparison might be a bit far fetched as Mr Collier is not a child any more, there’s a similarity with the immense concentration of talent around a person (Anakin Skywalker anyone? 😉 ).

Significance of the medium in which we get these talents presented to us is also not to be neglected. While the YouTube stardom of most of the above mentioned young talents doesn’t reach the “Internet Phenomenon” stage, with Mr Collier it not only does reach it but delving into his world through the available clips makes quickly apparent that he already has a vision of his career that won’t allow his star to descend any time soon. At least that’s what I sincerely wish for him and am eager to witness in the years and, with all likelihood, decades to come.

Mixer 2

 

Actually Collier’s undertakings remind me of Prince in many ways. Prince has also always (or at least mostly) played all the instruments except horns on his records. But in fact also on the business side. In the 90s Prince infamously quarrelled with his record label at the time Warner Brothers about the ownership of his master records and began sporting a “Slave” text written on his face and changed his name to an “unpronounceable symbol” – all acts with multiple meanings as well as causing headaches to his record label trying to promote the brand formerly known as Prince.

Prince is attributed to have been one of the first artists to realise the power of internet in music business, which Collier seems to have mastered quite well. In addition to his YouTube channel, which having over 44 000 subscribers (at the time of writing this) probably brings him more than pocket money in Google Adds compensations, Collier has also launched crowd sourcing project on Patreon. I’d say he’s at least got his tuition fees at the Royal Academy of Music covered and he’s still left with some to maintain his sizeable instrument collection 🙂

Another thing about talent I’d like to bring up is the “nature-nurture” aspect of it. Statements about talented people like “It’s in his/her genes” are common enough implying that the talent is inherited. Coming from a musical family, this seems to fit the bill in Collier’s case. It is, however, a fact of biology that learned traits are not simply passed on. We can’t change our genes by learning new stuff and expect our offspring to get that “in the mother’s milk”. Species evolution takes place on the gene level due to (significant) changes in the living environment causing some genes to mutate. And this doesn’t happen in a generation or two of e.g. musicality in the family.

For more about human musicality check this short and concise presentation by Professor Henkjan Honing.

While “everyone is musical” to an extent as Professor Honing has shown [English translation of his book Iedereen is muzikaal], this musicality is of a different kind than what we witness in Collier. His musical family does have everything to do with it but not in a way of “passing on” the family trait in their genes. Rather, musical families support each other should there be interest in pursuing musical activities. Such interest is apparent in Collier and the support of his family has enabled him to reach a level of musical maturity in a young age (Check out also the bass player Victor Wooten‘s an multi-instrumentalist Usman Riaz‘s similar stories). What we hear in Collier’s undertakings is not merely talent but passion and drive to put the countless hours into practising and working on his music required to reach this level. And he just seems to be getting started so I’m really looking forward to follow his musical adventures to come 😀

And to wrap up here’s one more gem from Jacob Collier.

Charlie Haden – Part II

When I first began writing this piece about Charlie Haden I could only think of the above-discussed duo album with Pat Metheny that I really know of Charlie Haden. But while browsing YouTube for his music I was reminded of three other albums on my shelf he plays on. These are from somewhat different eras and bring out different sides of Haden’s bass playing and career and worth a few more word, in my opinion. Again I leave the more extensive biographical commentary to others and discuss here my experience with Haden’s work as sideman on these albums.

The first one is a trio recording Somewhere before with the pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Paul Motian, recorded live in 1968 at the Shelly’s Manne-hole in Hollywood. The second is 80/81 (1980) with Pat Metheny and third Michael Brecker from Michael Brecker. None of these albums have had so profound effect on me and my playing as the first discussed duo album with Metheny, but there are certainly remarkable albums on their own account. I also find it interesting to see the connections between musicians and how their careers evolve and cross each other. A long career such as Haden’s provides a great opportunity to retrospectively “witness” a slice of jazz history being made.

Somewhere before (Keith Jarrett Trio)

As mentioned, different sides of Haden’s playing can be heard on these albums. The trio album with Jarrett and Motian is a very free flowing one. Jarrett and Haden make a good match musically as they both like to keep things open to work freely on their melodic ideas without too many structural boundaries set by the composition. Haden always wanted to break out of the confines of bass playing and play melodies and counter melodies rather than just keep time and mark the harmonies. With Jarrett he’s able to do that and you can hear how they’re both “just ears”, playing off of each other.

The record itself is producer George Avakian’s selection of performances recorded during the groups stay at the Manne-hole. Here’s a performance of the same group a few years later which, I think, illustrates my point pretty well. It’s an improvisational trip “going to places” in a way Jarrett’s music often does. Around 10 minutes Haden plays a groovy solo taking the performance to the next stage. There’s another bass solo at around 20 minutes on a ballad. While not his best ever, it demonstrates his “less is more” approach and focus on sound, e.g. with the use of vibrato.

80/81 (Pat Metheny)

According to Haden in the liner notes to Beyond the Missouri Sky, he first met Pat Metheny in 1973 when Metheny, age of 18 at the time, came up to introduce himself after Haden’s concert with Ornette Coleman (with whom they were collaborating a decade later on the Song X album). It was, however, during the extensive touring with the 80/81 project that they became friends. In addition to them, this group consisted of the saxophonists Dewey Redman, with Haden had played in an Ornette Colean project in the  above-mentioned Jarrett group in the early 1970s, Michael Brecker, with whom Metheny had played at least in the Joni Mitchell group of the late end of 1970s, and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

80/81 is also a rather free oriented album. The opening track Two Folk Songs is a 20 minute long elaboration of two folk song like melodies, one from Metheny and the other by Haden, tribute to both artists’ Mid-Western routes. Ornette Coleman is also tributed in the form of his blues Turnaround. This features a hard-swinging Haden demonstrating the power of walking bass line, not only in providing the rhythmic and harmonic foundation, but also as creatively and interactively participating in the musical conversation between the musicians.

When I was still learning the basics of jazz bass playing I was picking up a lot of stuff from bassists I heard. The “walking” motion in a walking bass line is a result of regular, on the beat, rhythm and continuous scalar melodic movement. While Haden indeed swings like no other, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear him repeating some notes in his lines occasionally. But then again, this is not a conventional bebop context and Haden’s lines contribute rhythmically as well as melodically to what’s happening in the music; he’s taking part in the conversation, in a language, one might say, that is not strictly bebop.

Michael Brecker (Michael Brecker)

Michael Brecker’s album Michael Brecker is in a way continuation of the collaboration we saw/heard on 80/81; but now Brecker as the leader. Apart from Kenny Kirkland on piano and the absence of Dewey Redman, this is the same group. By this time Brecker was already a very established jazz musician with e.g. a discography dating back two decades. He was perhaps best known of his fusion jazz groups Brecker Brothers and Steps Ahead.

Considering the rather prominent fusion sound on this album the choice of Haden as a bass player might seem a peculiar one. Together with the music production technology/philosophy of the 1980s, it’s often hard to hear the “rainforest” in Haden’s sound (see Part 1). On the other hand, it’s one more example of Haden’s versatility as a bass player and musician. Nothing Personal is a good example of this. It’s a minor blues featuring a bit fusion-like bass figure on the first part of the form and walking bass on the second part and under the solos. Haden’s walking bass lines are in the highly chromatic style he played on 80/81 as well; adding a sort of Coleman-style free jazz element to the fusion. The repeating notes in his lines can be heard here as well.

In Cost of Living we get Haden really in his element again with his familiar “wooden” sound as well as a beautiful solo. With Metheny on acoustic guitar on this track there’s something of flashback (or flashforward, really) to the duo album I discussed in the previous post.

Coda

This concludes my ruminations on Charlie Haden. Much could also be said of his philosophy of life and music, but I’ll leave that for others at this point. As you see here my musical acquaintance with Haden hasn’t been the most extensive one, but I’ve been able draw quite a few lessons from his music. I think we should all consider ourselves lucky to have had such a remarkable person and musician amongst us leaving his legacy for us to enjoy, study and learn from. So hats off and hands down to Mr. Haden!

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