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Geni Skendo: Breaking Free

By Published: March 1, 2011
GS: Yeah. He started to learn, on the radio in the village, and he told me. So I said to him, "Hey, man, can you give me the name of some CD so I can go and find it? Because it sounds really cool." I told him I heard some jazz before, but I didn't really like it. So he said, "Go find this pianist called Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
!" Now it's Albania, so it makes sense that I didn't know. My family was not intellectual. My father was in the army, and my mother made telephones, worked in the post office—simple people.

So I went to the only store in town where I knew he had jazz. The guy who ran the store—grumpy bastard. The guy loved jazz, a jazz fanatic, but stuck in Albania. He didn't see anybody; he made a living selling Albanian folk music that he hated. And I went there and I told him, "I'm looking to buy some jazz."

And he said, "What kind of jazz?"

And I said, "A friend told me about this pianist called Miles Davis."

The guy said, "Miles Davis is not a pianist!"

I bought Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), and I got something by Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
, the guy was playing then. There was no internet then, or very little, so I couldn't find information. I began to learn some stuff by ear, very minimal, and transcribed them.

AAJ: So, that was a very early, natural gift for you—to be able to play things by ear and transcribe them...

GS: I had perfect pitch, because one thing my father could control about music was my ear training. He would say, "Okay, now let's do some ear training. Find this note on the piano!" He used to do it with me all the time. He would throw a glass on the floor and be like, "What note is this?" So I had to find it. Not that he'd find it, but I had to try. When you do this all the time, you learn. I appreciate my father doing that now. He did it for the wrong reasons, but it's okay. So in Albania I began to play some jazz. Compared to what I do now, the level was nothing. But then, it was a lot.

So, when I came to study at Berklee I was like, "Wow! I know nothing." It was very humbling because I had a lot of experience playing in performance, but the level here is so high.

AAJ: You felt that, but you had a background that others didn't have...

GS: That's true, but where do you apply the experience, if you don't have the other skills that you need, to get to the levels where people can see you. Some people might hire you to play only two lines, a short solo, but are you qualified to play that? You have to have the vocabulary, the experience—the experience that will come out when you play only one phrase...

AAJ: So was there anyone who jumped out and recognized your dilemma and helped you through that?

GS: It was a process. When I went to school, I didn't have time to practice much because I needed money, so I was working in restaurants making pizzas. I was working in a Greek pizzeria, with uneducated people—all these people who came to the U.S. just to make money, but I had been in intellectual circles, performed with the biggest musicians in my country—so I was very pampered, in way.

AAJ: Really? In Albania aren't many people poor?

GS: It is poor, but things work with circles, so you have this job, and this other job, and this other, where you play music. And that's what you do. I was kind of sheltered there. But I thought, if I'm going to study music here, I better get the maximum out of my time. So I had no shame about asking anything music-wise. So what I did—a friend of mine, Matt Marvuglio, the dean of Berklee, he gave me free lessons. He did the same work when he was younger, making breakfast, making eggs, so he understood.

When you play jazz flute, it's hard. You have to learn the language so you can apply it to the instrument, but a lot of young musicians focus on the instrument too much, instead of learning the music. So I was too much focused on learning the effects...

AAJ: So you dropped out of Berklee?

GS: Yes. But I had some other friends there, faculty. I just bothered them the whole time, stalked them. "How do you do this? How do you do this?" I mean, it's music, not money, so people share ideas. Afterward, I picked up the shakuhachi.

AAJ: Where did you find the shakuhachi?

GS: I bought it online—a PVC (plastic) shakuhachi—because I heard it on Japanese movies. It's cheap—50 bucks—and first, when I was doing a demo to perform with friends, I recorded a song with shakuhachi. It's called "Sugar," by Stanley Turrentine
Stanley Turrentine
Stanley Turrentine
1934 - 2000
sax, tenor
. It was pentatonic, in C minor. But I played it with shakuhachi in D minor, the scale of shakuhachi. Just for fun. I was trying the color. I picked it up just for fun. But the band loved it! "It's really cool," they said. "Play some more!" And really, when I played, it energized the group more than my flute playing. And when people like what you do it makes it easier for you, psychologically, to do more work, and get more done.

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