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Interviews

Bojan Z: Stranger Sounds

By Published: July 31, 2006

When you are made for this that is what you are doing on this earth and you do it till the day you die.

Bojan ZDid a B-52 full of Fender Rhodes really crash near a small Serbian village a quarter of a century ago? What's a Steinway full of holes doing at a jazz festival? What is the connection between Jim Hall and the Dixie Chicks? And just who would pay $6,000 for a bottle of wine? European Jazz Artist of the Year 2005 and pianist extraordinaire Bojan Z has all the answers and in a candid interview talks about life and death (but mostly life), the paradoxes of American jazz, mediums, identity, the poor old CD and his latest recording Xenophonia (Label Bleu, 2006).

All About Jazz: You've come through Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia on this tour—are these new countries for you as a musician?

BZ: Yeah, actually all of them are new—they were a complete discovery. From Vietnam I know musicians that live in France, and I know people who are representative of this culture, but this has nothing to do with the fact that you go in a country and see it straight, first-hand observation. So that was very nice.

AAJ: Is there any difference to you as a musician playing to an audience who maybe don't know your music, I'm thinking of places like Vietnam and Cambodia, compared to playing to the converted at say, the Paris Jazz Festival where they know and appreciate your music? Is there any difference in the way you play?

BZ: Actually I started in Tokyo. That was the fourth time I was there, so you know the way the Japanese audiences are—once they grab you they don't leave you. They really have this long-term relationship thing which is...great! So I started playing this tour in front of an audience that actually knew everything about me, you know, even more than me! They're crazy! So I could really compare in an obvious way the difference but I didn't change many things in what I play, thinking 'this is the audience who don't know me'. There is a difference for me, challenges, because those who don't know me certainly need some more time to get into the story. The energy I get back from the audience can be different.

AAJ: When you are touring unfamiliar places, do your day to day experiences, the sights and sounds, does that enter your music at all in concert in the evening?

BZ: Of course, of course. In general that's where I find my inspiration, in life. One thing I know for sure my inspiration is life and not death. It's interesting, that I know for sure from those few years of war, you know, there was death all over the place—nothing artistic was coming out of this. But life! Ahhh! You know, colors, people, food and nature, smells, the sounds of course. I'm very, how do you say, sensitive to it? So I'm sure that in some way or another this inspires the musical playing every day.

AAJ: I notice in your music, in your playing, a great sense of fun.

BZ: Myself, yeah. At least I'm having a hard time hiding it. Maybe I should hide it more but I don't think so. I'm having fun. You know, it's this old thing about "Duende —if it's there then I'm having fun, if it's not there then I'm sweating my ass, as they say.

AAJ: Your new album Xenophonia has been received by critics as quite a departure from what you've recorded up until now.

BZ: There are differences in the way it was done and there are differences certainly in the end result, compared to the rest of what I've done, but for me it's a complete continuation of the things that I was launching already. For me it's not 'now I stop what I was doing and do something completely different', I just took more time to work on the sound—the vertical dimension—the colors, the profundity, which sound goes where. For example, on some of the instruments I play, I had this set-up which was acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes and customized Fender Rhodes which gives me quite a lot of possibilities sound-wise— mixing the piano with Fender Rhodes which I already did onTranspacifik (Label Bleu, 2003). That's why I say it is a continuation; I already had these ideas for that record which was like, two or three years ago. The Fender Rhodes that I had in the studio was really not good so I didn't use it. I organized myself and I had two of them! [laughs] In general, about the performance, we were all working on textures and sounds more than who's going to be the fastest, that's where the difference for me is.

I played with guys like Ben Perowsky, who is a drummer from Brooklyn who is actually in my working trio since just after the release of Transpacifik.. So I just wanted to get into the studio and do something and the good thing was I didn't have the obligation, a luxury given to me by Label Bleu, to come out of the studio with a CD in my hand, you know. So what we did was just sit and play. I had a few tunes that were supposed to be tunes but the rest was just playing with the tape turning and that's it. Then it took like six months to listen to it at home with the multi-track while I'm imagining the thing afterwards. Then in the meantime Ben Perowsky stopped. He had many obligations back in the States and Ari Hoenig took the role and we did the second recording six months after the first. In the meantime I had composed some tunes and we did the same thing, just playing and seeing what was there. So I ended up with quite a lot of material and then I was obliged to put this material down on the famous form of CD, which was 60 minutes. Don't make it more than 60 minutes! That's at least what most producers think. So that's the short story about it.

For me the important thing, the year of work, more than a year of work on this CD corresponds to a very... I wouldn't use the term "heavy but very full year of my life—full of changes, with life and death. My daughter was born, my Dad died, I got married for the second time, I moved to a new place, changed manager. I mean, it's like everything you can imagine changed in this one year. As Mingus used to say of his LP releases, he would always put a sticker with a quote from himself: (imitates Mingus) "This is the best recording I've ever made!" So this is exactly what I'm doing—"this is the best record I ever made! [laughs]

AAJ: The xenophone sounds like a joke. What exactly is it?

BZ: I bought my first Fender Rhodes in ' 81 in a bar in a village next to Belgrade and the funny thing is that a few years ago, knowing that in Belgrade I can eventually find a Fender Rhodes cheap I called my brother to try to find something there and he found actually the same village. But he found just the shell of a Fender Rhodes and just a few keys. It was the wife of a bassist who had died and she found herself with ten euros in her pocket and fifty guitars and instruments that the guy left. So basically, I bought this for 300 euros, the price more or less of a complete Fender Rhodes and it was more to help this woman out.

And there I found the idea, you know. I like these coincidences that can have some meaning or not at all, but for me the fact that it was 25 years later in the same village that I found it. It's like, what happened here? Was there a B-52 with Fender Rhodes which fell down here? Anyway, what I did was I started buying all the parts on e-bay and basically I had different vintages and different years and while I was putting this thing together I kept all the imperfections. I actually wanted every note to sound different because it was not the point to have to have just another Fender Rhodes—I was dreaming about having an instrument that I could tamper with for Arabic scales or scales coming from cultures other than European for quite some time.

With a piano you cannot do it because you have to have your own tuner. It's impossible. But I thought finally, that's what I'm going to do with this guy; it's easier to learn how to tune it, instead of having to find some effects, distortion, treating it like a guitar and thing like this you know. That's why I call it "xenophone. Why? Besides the connection to the name of the record—it's the reaction I get every time I plug it in and play something on it and I observe the reaction from most of the people—it's like some stranger, some naked stranger has walked in. Ahh!! What isthis?!

AAJ: Xenophonia?

BZ: It was one of those words that cross your mind and you die laughing, but the more I was thinking about it the more I was like, this is a concept, this is not a joke. I'm living in France in a period of my life where it's exactly the same time that I was living in Belgrade. Recently I had a funny situation as I married a Dutch woman which somehow put me off the tracks of becoming a real Frenchman, which I was, because she is clearly not interested in my French side, she is much more interested in my Yugoslav origins. That really compromised my French integration, which is doing fine, but the funny thing is when you start criticizing things about France, which actually is a French national sport, they do it all day long. So I've done my exams, I have my diploma of somebody who has the right to do this but if I do it a bit too much—it happened with my ex-wife, which is more logical, and my best friend too who just happened to say: "Well, if you don't like it here go there and maybe it will be better.

And it was like, did you hear yourself? Just listen to yourself! Are you telling this to me? You know that I'm not completely French. Fuck you! But it was very significant because the thing is when I go to Belgrade when I meet the guys there, they're all like "Bojan, he's French; he's been living there for 20 years. So many things have changed. Which is true, but at the same time I am doing more for the music from there than any of them, just because I'm more in the spotlight than they are. So it's a funny position. You know, I guess Miles Davis never had this thing to deal with in life. He managed to be a star in his own country.

AAJ: He had a lot to deal with though.

BZ: He had a lot to deal with but he didn't have to deal with not going there, not living there, and things like this. What I'm sure is that I won't go back to Belgrade to live because the more I'm waiting for it to become normal the more it's getting smaller and smaller. It's hard to imagine what's there for me. So it's like I'm some sort of perpetual stranger. So that goes with the title—the sound of a stranger, or strange sound—however you want. But the thing is I know that many guys would not see this and the word would have the negative effect for them which is "xenophobia and that is what has happened. I have so many guys... "About this title, Xenophobia... [laughs]. Read it again. Then I'll help you prepare your questions again—see you in a week. [laughs]

AAJ: You perform a lot of solo concerts and yet you've recorded only one solo album, which was very highly acclaimed. Why not more solo albums?

BZ: Nobody's pushing me to. Myself, I'm not pushing myself either. I have to start hearing some new things. It's coming slowly. The thing is I have a strange point of comparison about productivity. I was doing my first CD, it was in New York. We did it in Seer Sound Studios in New York. The day after Dave Douglas, the trumpet player, was doing his first CD. Now we're 13 years later and you compare my discography with Dave Douglas and it's like, where's the problem here? It's on his side or it's on my side, or it's two different ways of functioning. I think he's made fifteen or sixteen albums under his name while I'm now on six. So I think I'm more diesel than benzene. It's just that I don't make records if I don't hear something that is worth putting down.

AAJ: Is playing solo the context that you most enjoy?

BZ: No, it's really a complimentary activity. It's not more it's not less. The only drag is when on a tour or traveling. Most of the guys that I'm playing with are my friends too, which isn't necessary but I like hanging out with the guys discovering things together. That's why I could never go on a six-month solo tour. They are very, very hard. So it's totally complimentary. The way this music is dealt with when I'm alone is different than when there are three of us. But it's the same quest. But the more I do it the more I feel the idea that I've heard from the mouth of so many musicians, that I'm not the one who is producing this, it's there and so I'd better be in good shape to pass it through me, through the instrument. With a trio we are trying to get the three of us on the same level, to communicate the same music, which is not the case when I'm with my own trio [solo] which is Me, Myself and I.

AAJ: For me your music is very visual, almost cinematic. For example, the song "CD Rom, during the really fast runs, and my friend afterwards told me exactly the same thing, we could imagine the Roma people gathering up their CDs because the police are coming and then legging it away.

Bojan ZBZ: That's great! [laughs] That's exactly it! These guys are speedy, OK? Music-wise I think that the thing that you will never hear from these guys is play a straight note [imitates a warbling run of gypsy notes]—it's coming from India, that's where the link is very clear. Have you seen the movie Latcho Drom? It's a very good movie. It's a documentary a bit more cinema-adapted by Tony Gatliff who's a French gypsy, manouche director. It's speaking about the story of the gypsy, all the way from India to Galicia, Spain., Norway. So that's a tip for you if you have time to see this movie. But that's a very good image! They're very speedy!

AAJ: Do you have images running through your mind when you're playing, for example on that song or "Don't Buy Ivory Anymore"—do you have elephants going through your mind like a story?

BZ: I'm not thinking about where I will go shopping with all this money I'm going to earn from tonight by playing this song, you know. [laughs]

AAJ: Or the girl in the third row...

BZ: You know the joke, it's a funny one. A manager of a band in order to know how to deal with his band he took a medium, you know a voyaume, the guy who can read the thoughts. The keyboard player is thinking: "My God! What am I doing here? I could be earning so much money working in the studio and doing this film music. What am I doing here?" The clarinetist is thinking: "I'm the best. I'm just the best." The drummer is like: "Ok, the blonde in the second row, I'll have her tonight." It comes to the bassist and it's: "E E, GG, CC..." [laughs]

AAJ: I remember an interview of yours some years ago in which you were reminiscing, you were remembering about the time when you were the second best jazz pianist in Yugoslavia but then you said that there were only two of you. Now that you are the undisputed number one Yugoslavian jazz pianist, are there still only two?

BZ: No, there are others, but it was a very generous move that I did which was I moved from there and freed the space. There are musicians. There are piano players, but the problem with the piano players precisely, which hasn't changed, on the contrary, is that the new guys commit the mistake that they will have to pay for a long time which is they accept playing on claviolas and electronic pianos, not electric—that's completely different, a Fender Rhodes is a mechanical machine, but you know synthesizers with a pre-recorded piano sound.

AAJ: So you can't become a good pianist...

BZ: ....if you don't have an instrument. And once you give club owners the idea that this works perfectly, you just plug it in, no mike, no fuss, then you have it for ten years to come at least to try to convince somebody that he should get a decent piano. So the problem is that there are no pianos in the clubs and for me that's very significant. So there are piano players but it's going to be very hard for them to develop their artistry by playing shitty keyboards. That's for sure.

AAJ: What's the state of Balkan jazz these days? Is it healthy? Yugoslavian jazz, whatever...

BZ: It's hard to speak... you know there are so many efforts made by all of them there to separate from each other—so they're almost getting aggressive if you say "Yugoslavia. Croat, Serb, whatever—but the thing is I still feel it's my own—"they can't take that away from me. And the funny thing is that wherever I play they always say: "He's ours." So, ah, what was the question?

AAJ: Is there a thriving, healthy jazz scene in the different components of the ex-Yugoslavia?

BZ: I wouldn't say that. There are musicians, there are guys who are making efforts, making things happen. It is always a constant effort. Thinking even of what I saw here [Bangkok] yesterday, it's the same thing—look at this town, look at how many people are living here and still this completely mistaken idea of jazz, so either it's smooth jazz or it's not. This title, "smooth jazz, never made it in France, it's pejorative. Whoever uses it in his record shop he'd better move into some supermarket.

Here, when they say jazz it actually means smooth jazz.. The thing is in France there was this fighting for the stature of artists really for years and years, maybe it's so French, I don't know but the result is quite visible concerning the number of festivals, the number of venues, the quality of the pianos, the way that things are dealt with, the money you earn when you play. Well, that's one of the consequences of all those guys fighting for it for 35 years or more. And I had the luck of playing with guys like Henri Texier and Michel Portal who started this thing and they are the ones who explained to me how things are going there. Did I answer your question?

AAJ: Yeah, I think you did somewhere in the middle of that. You've been a fairly regular player at the Sarajevo Jazz Fest, three or four times and you're playing there again this November with your trio. I wanted to ask you what it felt like playing there for the first time after the war and could you tell us a little about the jazz festival itself?

BZ: Look, Sarajevo never had a jazz festival before. Most of the big Yugoslav towns, there was a wave of jazz festivals which was around the month of October, Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade, Novi Sad and Skopje, but Sarajevo was never on this run of musicians passing through Yugoslavia, which is the reason for my surprise after talking with Vlatko Stefanovski who's an Estonian guitarist who plays on one of my records and he told me:

"Where were you last month? I played in Sarajevo."

I said: "Where did you play in Sarajevo?" They started doing concerts in'97 just after finally the bombs stopped falling on this town.

He said: "Oh, a jazz festival."

I said: "Jazz festival in Sarajevo?"

I mean this was like impossible to imagine. The war had just stopped, this was a ruined town and suddenly there's a jazz festival! So which purpose is it? Is it a Muslim jazz festival? [laughs] Is it sponsored by Saudi Arabia or what? Well no. There was a young guy, born in 1972 or something. He got out of the ashes and started a jazz festival and he was dealing with venues and whatever player he could. He found this Steinway that was in an army house. It had holes in its side.

So I contacted the guy, we met in France at some jazz festival meeting and I couldn't not like this guy. He told me: "Look, I have no money really but would you like to come here and be honored as much as you can?". So I said of course, I'm dreaming about it. So that's what happened. I went there and I played a solo concert in this army house on this Steinway with holes and... it was a very emotional moment you know, because of course I had most of my family from Sarajevo. I was born in Belgrade and my parents live in Belgrade, but most of my brothers they were there. Then I went back with a trio with Karim Ziad and Julien Lourau, which was a bass-less trio which I play with sometimes, and I went back when Transpacifik was recorded with Ben Perowsky and Remi Vignolo.

Actually the thing is that since my name is Bosnian, Zulfikarpasic comes from Pasha Zulfika, so for those who put some importance on this if they look at my name they see I'm Bosnian but born in Slovenia so that's why I'm Yugoslavian—even my name is a mixture..."improbable, as they say in French. So the funny thing is he told me when he was in Sarajevo it's like: "Who is this Bojan Z? You are playing in Sarajevo, it should be B. Zulfikarpasic." Why am I telling you this? Because he represented me for the Hans Koller prize for years as a Bosnian. You know I don't care. He thinks I'm Bosnian, great, because I am still all of it. So for four years he was representing me and two years I was the second and last year I won first prize which is really a good thing because 15,000 euros is one of the rare, only one nowadays where the prize is cash. Let's be honest, it's very good to have a prize with money. So I won it as a Bosnian.

AAJ: I wanted to ask you about the European prize—not only about winning it, but going back to the 2002 edition the jury stated that they had noticed, and I quote: "signs of stagnation in American jazz. You've been to America, you've played with American musicians, I wondered if you agreed with that?

BZ: The role of music in American society has been stagnating for quite some time. If I buy Down Beat or those magazines that are supposed to be the hippest of the hip, well, they are everything but hip. They are right-wing, conservative, speaking about this music in exactly the same way. Not a word about all this bullshit of George Bush, this shame of humanity that they have over there—let's start in the right way. Not a word about American musicians who are walking around with peace flags and signs saying that they don't agree with what is going on there.

AAJ: They get censored.

BZ:Of course. So this is not the frame of mind that I'm interested in at all. Now, all records that have nothing to do with the frame of mind of most of the musicians that I'm playing with or the guys that I like, like Jim Hall. [Bassist] Scott Colley told me a few years ago that before each set in the Village Vanguard Jim Hall would take a mike and say something, you know, good old man, decent, jazz guitar legend and saying things like: "I'm listening to so many different styles of music and find myself still discovering things. Recently I bought a record of the Dixie Chicks. It's amazing what they do. And the people die laughing. And then: "Seriously, I am not used to living in a fascist regime." This at the Village Vanguard. But you'll never hear a word about it in any of those "jazz newspapers, but what you will see is "My Favourite Things' questionnaires to Kenny Barron. It's like an interview:

Q: Which is your favourite watch?

Kenny Barron: Well, I have a Rolex...

Q: "What's your favourite color?

Can you imagine this? Toshiko Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin!

Q: What is your favourite wine?

A: Oh, Chateau Ikan, 1929—they never let you down.

They are serious! You guys are serious, one bottle is $6,000! You know this glamour thing. Fuck! That's my opinion about this to be honest. So the social treatment of this music is not really corresponding to what it's supposed to bear as energy.

Besides that then you have the thing that middle class gigs are non-existent. You know most of us, we live from the gigs which are financially speaking from $1,000 to $10,000 range, you know it depends where you are, smaller or bigger hall, bigger venue. You know I'm speaking about bands, band price. And this doesn't exist; they have from zero to $1,000, which is....pay a band with this! And then you have these tremendous numbers of thousands of dollars from $10,000 on for Sonny Rollins and Keith Jarrett and people like this.

So this has completely killed the economy that the music can generate. That's what I think. If you're a lucky shot like Jason Moran who on the one hand is covered by the media and on the other hand he's got gigs and everything then it's OK, but tons and tons of guys, most are refugees in European countries, that's where they get their production labels and things like this. So, this is one side of the coin. The reverse side of the coin is if you find yourself in front of saxophonist Joe Lovano, he is going to blow your mind! You're going to get scared. So that's the other side of the coin, music artistry, the giants that are still alive and kicking. That's not just a legend, it is true. It's happening. Once they go for something they go for it all the way and they do it in this serious, very serious way.

AAJ: At the recent 10th Annual Jazz Awards there, Sonny Rollins came out as best musician of the year, best tenor of the year, Wayne Shorter's was the best small combo. I think his combo is magic...

BZ: But the last record isn't. I love the combo, I opened the London Jazz Festival for them, it was the Royal Festival Hall, which was amazing! I loved this band, I loved everything they did. I bought the record [Beyond the Sound Barrier (Verve, 2005)] straight away but I was listening to it and truly found there was something hermetic going on with this recording But that's my opinion.

AAJ: Getting back to this question of whether or not American jazz has somehow stagnated, the winners of this poll, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Sam Rivers, Phil Woods, Jim Hall, Paul Motian, Andrew Hill, nominees like Roy Haynes, Lee Konitz, Toots Thielemans, well, Toots is Belgian, all these guys are in their 70s and 80s. I still think they're producing a lot of good music, but do you think that this comment by the jury for the European jazz award.....

Bojan ZBZ: No. No. Definitely not. The funny thing about the difference of these two planets is that...I can give you an example. With this prize nobody will have heard about me in America. Now whose fault is it? Is it mine? I'm playing sometimes a hundred and fifty concerts a year, I'm doing fine, don't worry about me, maybe better get some rest. Yeah, recording for a French label, that is my main distributor but of course they propose every now and then my records to the American distribution to produce it there to lower the costs of distribution etc. So OK, some people think that I am, whatever that means, best European Jazz Musician, that's one of the things that, you know, Europe, it's very simple—jazz musicians wouldn't be able to make a living out of it if there wasn't Europe. It's as clear as that. It's not some fixed idea I'm defending, it is a reality. I know it by playing with American musicians. I know what they ask, what they can ask, and what they can have here. With anybody, with guys like me. But believe me the day that I will go there and eventually be paid, well, that is going to be very funny.

But there is a big gap of information even amongst musicians. I talked with Chick Corea—he's supposed to be an informed man, well he's not. He doesn't know what's going on really in Europe, which is funny because we are filling up the halls and we are keeping up and forming their public. You know they come here [Europe] and they see all these young guys listening to them: "Wow! Great, young audience! Yeah, because most musicians year round are doing workshops, telling these kids to listen to them, making them discover this music, really defending in some way this cause and so yeah, then they have these people filling up the halls too. And in the meantime, sometimes, that's the funny thing happening now that we are filling up the halls more than they are, besides all this prestige thing, so that sometimes the thing that can happen if you are ignorant about what is going on and there is a big dose of ignorance in the American audience in general, in jazz fans and the jazz media—there is still this blockade, concerning musicians from, I don't know, elsewhere than the United States. That's just the way it is.

AAJ: I keep reading and hearing from American jazz musicians—[guitarist John] Scofield is the most recent one I've heard—complaining that they can't make a living in America and that's why they all come over to Europe for the festival season in the summer. Does that make sense to you? Because it doesn't make sense to me—I look at every sizeable town in America and it has a jazz festival.

Z: That goes with what I told you about this middle class span of prices for jazz gigs. He's supposed to be doing fine but he's touring Europe all the time. And Bill Stewart and Steve Swallow, they go in a trio. Steve Swallow is seventy years old or something, or he looks old. He's got a certain age, and you know he's still touring all over the place. Paul Motian just stopped 'cause he's 74 so he doesn't want to travel anymore. I wonder about their health insurance and things like this, if they have it. So yeah, I guess one of the reasons that they continue is of course when you are made for this that is what you are doing on this earth and you do it till the day you die. In the meantime it is good if you are not obliged to do it. So I would believe what Sco said is true.

AAJ: If you were on the jury for the European Jazz Prize of 2006, who would you vote for? And you can't vote for yourself!

BZ: I wouldn't vote for myself, that's for sure.

AAJ: Who for you are the most exciting and interesting musicians that you are familiar with?

BZ: I don't know because I'm still discovering. You know I just made a tour to Poland and it's a funny thing—Slavic brothers? Hell no! There's a big difference between Slavs from the north and Slavs from the south. But the funny thing was that the guy from the jury of the prize—there were Polish guys too—and the guy I met was like "I was very surprised to see that a completely unknown musician won this prize. Well him too, he better get off America, you know. The Polish, they view Europe as eventually the way of reaching America, but they are so much into America that this is quite strange.

AAJ: It's the same the whole world over.

BZ: Yeah, but the thing is they end up by being ignorant. But anyhow I discovered some Polish musicians, a pianist. Well, there are things happening, there are things happening. So before being able to vote as an informed man I first have to inform myself and I don't think I know everything that is going on in Europe. I would really have to think about it much more than just spit out a name. I don't have a name that pops in my mind.

AAJ: Talking about Polish musicians, do you know Tomasz Stanko's pianist?

BZ: Makita Thomas, no, Michiavic something. [Marcin Wasilewski]. Yeah. Yeah. There are definitely guys who have things to say and simply doing their shit and doing it good. But I cannot answer this question—I could have somebody who recently blew my mind and tell you but I don't.

AAJ: Fair enough. Anybody watching you playing would have no doubt that the piano is a percussion instrument. Did you ever play drums or did you ever want to play drums?

BZ: I am definitely, how do you say it, a frustrated drummer, or not frustrated, in French we say garcon manqué. You know drummer manqué. I could have been, and I was playing drums in rock bands and I'm listening to drums very much and this is really a very important instrument for the music I imagine. So, yeah, that's one of the reasons I go for guys like Ben Perowsky and Ari Hoenig you know and Nasheet Waits, because they just push me to play over my own limit.

AAJ: When you were growing up what rock bands were you listening to?

BZ: Everything. It started with the Beatles, and I still think it was a very lucky day for me when I received Revolver—I was six years old and it's interesting because the role of their music at my tender age was really opening the windows and getting pictures of elsewhere. Not that my childhood was oppressed in Belgrade, it was a very happy childhood and everything, but that just put the perspective. And no wonder when I was eleven I went to Coventry Spa to study English and ended up traveling all over Britain and really this is my first love country because of their music. Through them of course I developed in all directions. Actually I realized that I have quite a good knowledge of rock music in general. I was listening to everybody from The Allman Brothers Band to Yes. I had also albums by Rick Wakeman and things like this. I was into keyboards and keyboard players and into rock and I was going for it all the way.

AAJ: My musician mate last night at the concert said to me: "I bet you Bojan has Hunky Dory by [David] Bowie, which has Rick Wakeman on piano.

BZ:I had it. That's the one where he's flying or something, a blue cover. I don't know where they've gone all those LPs—somewhere. I was really listening to all of it, I was listening to the Sex Pistols, like, all the way. It was in '79 that I was in London—Supertramp had just done Breakfast in America, The Police had the second album, Regatta de Blanc, so it was a perfect vibe, a London vibe that I could feel when I was there at 11 years old. I was already five years into rock. Yeah, that's why underlying this side of my musical education I ended up knowing quickly that I would not be a classical pianist.

AAJ: Although I think it's clear to anybody that you have a classical style in your playing.

BZ:I had training of course but what you hear mostly is the way I'm listening to this music, and I'm still listening to this music. I don't need to spend hours in front of the written notes. I'm used to learning music by ear not by reading it on paper so that's what you hear. Certainly I made a profit [benefited] out of years—I started when I was five, so you know by the age of ten I did have the basic things about the instrument in my fingers. But I discovered how to practice by myself when I finished music school when I was seventeen. By myself I sat down, so once school was over I could really deal with it myself and find the importance of it for me.

Yeah, so for me the rock side is very important. And it's not like a sin from the childhood—far from that because quite a lot of jazz musicians keep an eye on their rock period and that's where Ben Perowsky just blew my mind when I heard the way he's playing with a rock band, and the way he approaches it is exactly the same as when he's playing duets with Sylvie Courvoisier, you know, completely improvised music. For him it's exactly the same thing. And when you listen to him play this beat, for example on Xenophonia we play two tunes which have more of a rock feel, "Ashes to Ashes," by David Bowie, and the second one is a real slow blues, but like a rock blues. The sound he's got, the way he's playing the music is just amazing. He's not going to do it because he has to earn more money playing this, no. He's into this music body and soul. Actually for me it's the same thing—I still listen to everything that can move me, you know. I was into "Buttons" when I was fifteen years old so now I'm not going to say ":Buttons, oh no!"

AAJ: It's formative, isn't it?

BZ: Yeah, and I like continuing to inform myself about machine skills and recording engines and things like this—it's very helpful. So that's my knowledge of rock music. I was listening to everything I could get my hands on.

AAJ: How many languages can you speak?

BZ: Fluently, three, and I can express myself a little in Italian but this is more because of the proximity and love I have for their language and this country. On the other hand, my problem is the house where I will have complots [conspiracies] behind my back in Dutch, so I am about to try and learn some Dutch in order to understand.

AAJ: I guessed you had three minimum and I imagined you had bits and pieces of a couple more—do you think there's a correlation, a relationship between an ability to learn and absorb spoken language and an ability to absorb musical idioms?

BZ: Of course. For me, what is music if it's not a language? I've got two sons from my first marriage; both of them are interested in music. The first one even has some other talents which I discovered when he was six—that he's got perfect pitch. Mine is not perfect. By practicing music for quite some years already I can guess the note. But the funny thing is looking at them and giving them some education about music and helping them achieve it—the only idea I had about it was I wanted them to understand music as a language. Then they do with it whatever they want but I couldn't permit them to end up not understanding music as a language. And the way it happened made it clear to me that music is a language. Now where are the frontiers of this language and where does it go in another country? Depends on so many things. But it definitely has something to do with ability to speak other languages. The wish to do it is the thing.

AAJ: In the concert in Siem Reap you cited Don Cherry as an influence. Piano players apart, what other musicians like Don Cherry have had a big influence on you?

BZ: Oh Miles Davis certainly. It's not very original I know, but heck! If I didn't say it I would be lying. I'm still listening to....the way he generates music with the guys that are around as well, that's one of the very strong points of his artistry. But the way he's playing trumpet, the sound he had, this is really happening you know. Ah, so many of them you know. I still listen to all the major...Charlie Haden. I was studying double bass for four years too for the classical thing, so I do have a double bass, which is another thing which helps me playing with bass players.

AAJ : When you're solo you are a bit of a one-man band. The percussion thing, particularly the rhythm of your piano playing—you're the drummer, the bassist as well as the pianist .

BZ: Well, that's Me, Myself and I which I told you about. No, but it is because I do think and I imagine bass, I imagine drums, I imagine harmonies. Well, but that's an important thing you know. Important? It's an interesting thing—I studied with Clare Fischer who's supposed to be the most sophisticated harmonicist, harmony-wise pianist living on this planet, because Bill Evans and the others are not here anymore. Which is true, and I do hear all these things, but very often, and especially when I play solo I emphasize the rhythmic and line—wise things and I like actually the African color of these non-African instruments, if you see what I mean—the lyric side of it too.

Actually, in my McCoy Tyner period I was very touched by the way he made this instrument sound like a Kora—I don't know if he was aware of it himself but he certainly did it. For me the most African sound of the piano were on Randy Weston and McCoy Tyner's records, and he's got this percussive thing that afterwards Chick Corea took and in his own way made out of it something else. But I was listening to him quite a lot. I'm still juggling you know, everything I hear. You know I bought this video in Tokyo of Bill Evans and it's funny to see this man. He was definitely a freak! You know, his broken teeth...

AAJ: He was smacked up though for a lot of years.

BZ: Oh he was smacked up yeah, in this video he is. And then of course there is the thing where he sat down and played a melody with just one finger and you are like oooooh! [speechless]. You know, touched by some grace of course. Why do I tell you this? Because I remember when I was studying all these guys, it was really like corresponding to my teenage spirit while I was looking to Red Garland he was the God, the rest was shit. Then boom! I was switched to Wynton Kelly. Wynton Kelly was God! etc etc. etc. I was treating all of them and nowadays I'm still listening to them and Alfred Brendel, you know on the classical side.

I just love hearing all these different things piano-wise, just on the one hand to remember the lost colors of this instrument because there is a tendency nowadays growing into a certain pattern of piano playing that most of the pianist are using and they just forget about these things for example, Errol Garner or Earl Hines and guys like this, the way they were using this instrument—so all these colors are a bit left aside. So, Duke Ellington is one of my favorite piano players because he's the one I like listening to at almost any moment of the day, so fresh and so mysterious and his attitude so...hip! If you ever get your hands on Music is my Mistress there is one thing that left me breathless and it was at the end of the book, there is a list of the tunes that he composed, I mean, I really felt like, little, and lost in the woods. And you're looking at the titles and it's like Ohhh! My goodness! What a production! Quantity and quality.

AAJ: He was a very special case though.

BZ: He's one of the special cases but hey, better listen to special cases like this because they kick my ass and everybody needs it every now and then.

AAJ: Are you familiar with a pianist, Jan Johansson?

BZ: No?

AAJ: He's a...dead. He was Swedish and nobody knows the guy...

BZ: Ok! It's possible that it was this guy that Esbjorn Svenson mentioned at some concert that they were dedicating a tune—it was in the Sarajevo Festival. That's where I saw Esbjorn with the trio, where I was playing the first part of the evening and he was playing afterwards, and he was speaking about this guy, dedicating a tune, and I think it was this name. So who is the guy?

AAJ : Jan Johansson. I was curious if you are familiar with him because he sounds like nobody else. He's Swedish who, loosely speaking, you could call a jazz pianist—solo stuff by and large, but not dissimilar to yourself—he has the folkloric side which sweeps, infuses right the way through everything he plays. Beautiful, quite minimalist. The version you did of "Ashes to Ashes" in Siem Reap—I could see him, if he were alive today, doing something like that.

BZ: That I really look forward to hearing.

AAJ: While we're on Bowie. I read an interview with Bowie not that long ago and he said that in the near future musicians are going to have to start doing an awful lot of gigs because that's the only way they'll be able to generate any money because he says musicians are losing control over their music because of pirating, downloading and that made me think, because of your song "CD Rom," which is a kind of fond portrayal of the CD pirating in Belgrade. I just wondered where you stand on pirating of music.

Bojan ZBZ: Things are very clear for me, because I just finished this recording and I know that the making of the CD cost 35,000 euros. This is the investment. So, what is the way of generating the money back? Author rights. They take 50% of my author rights, but this is not just for them making money, this is to inject money in my career, my posters, things like this. And the second thing is selling. I'm lucky to be working with guys who are investing in quality besides the fact that the times are not hard, they are impossible to live for them. So there are many different views why it is like this, but this is not the question. So, very obvious, the object itself is completely devalued. I heard my producer Pierre Walforz say this on the radio a few days ago, doing a radio promotion in Belgium and he said that nowadays, you know, bringing a CD as a gift at a birthday party is the worst gift you can think of. It's like, come on in anyway.

AAJ: It's the best gift you can get!

BZ: How about this? I would receive an LP and jump over the person, look at it and couldn't sleep for looking at it. So, it's true that nowadays, with the CD it's hard to make people believe that this is a work of art. This is art, work, that costs money. If you want to have a nice cover, somebody thought about it—it costs money to make it and things like this. The good thing if I can say it's a good thing for me is that I am already used to not earning my living by selling CDs. I'm still doing OK. I'm still selling like at least 10,000 CDs.

AAJ: Per year, you mean?

BZ: No, no. it's an average for CDs I make. For example Solobsession (Label Bleu, 2000) is getting up to 20,000, but it was done in 2001. It's still selling. But most of them did reach this respectable number of 10,000. If Bowie says it he cannot be wrong about it because it's there. If I park my computer here in the hotel and put my CD in it I can send this CD to my wife in real time, which means it will take the time that it takes to listen to it, or even less. You can pass this quality music through the cable in real time. And it's going even much faster so we'd better get things organized, or there will not be good music any more.


Selected Discography

:

Bojan Z, Xenophonia (Label Bleu, 2006)
Julien Lourau, Fire and Forget (Label Bleu, 2005)
Marimanga Trio, Marimanga Trio (Gramofon, 2004)
Bojan Z, Transpacifik (Label Bleu, 2003)
Nguyen Lé, Purple—Celebrating Jimi Hendrix (ACT, 2002)
Henri Texier Azur Quintet, String Spirit (Label Bleu, 2002)
Julien Lourau, The Rise (Label Bleu, 2001)
Bojan Z, Solobsession (Label Bleu, 2000)
Karim Ziad, Ifrikyia (ACT, 2000)
Bojan Z, Koreni (Label Bleu, 1999)
Henri Texier Azur Quintet, Mosaic Man (Label Bleu, 1998)
Nguyen Le, Maghreb & Friends (ACT, 1997)
Simon Spang-Hanssen, Instant Blue (Storyville, 1997)
Michel Portal, Dockings (Label Bleu, 1997)
Bojan Z, Yopla! (Label Bleu, 1995)
Henri Texier Sonjal Septet, Mad Nomads (Label Bleu, 1995)
Bojan Z, Bojan Z Quartet (Label Bleu, 1993)
Henri Texier Azur Quartet, An Indian's Week (Label Bleu, 1993)
Sylvian Beuf 4tet, Impro Primo (Big Blue Records, 1993)
Vincent Courtois, Turkish Blend (Al Sur, 1992)
Jacques Bolognesi Big Band, Caravanserail (OMD, 1988)

Photo Credits:
Top Photo: JM Lobrano
Center Two Photos: Ian Patterson
Bottom Photo: Jean-Luc Agathos



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