Arto Tuncboyacıyan: Mr. Avant-Garde Folk
"Then we played for four or five hours. I knew he was a special person. After, I learned who was Arthur Blythe. He was really great. He's one of those people, not a really big name but he didn't sound like Coltrane and he didn't sound like this or like that." Tunçboyacıyan has recorded twice with Blythe, including the wonderful Night Song, which captured a gentler, more lyrical side to the saxophonist, accompanied by the Armenian's sympathetic percussion.
In 1995, Tunçboyacıyan got a call to play in the Zawinul Syndicate, a gig on which he would also play with future Human Element bassist Garrison. Although the percussionist's tenure in Zawinul's band was not an enduring one, he holds the late Austrian musician in high regard: "Zawinul was of no country, no religion, he was a revolutionary musician." There are strong similarities between Zawinul and Tunçboyacıyan's inclusive approach to music. They are united by a refusal to recognize musical borders and their natural absorption of different rhythms and sounds from around the world. Tunçboyacıyan refers to himself as an avant-garde folk musician, and the term also suits Zawinul. Given that three of the four members of Human Element played with Zawinul at one time or another, it is not entirely surprising that this most influential composer/musician has left a footprint in its collective sound.
Tunçboyacıyan recognizes the influence and importance of Zawinul, but is clear about where his music is coming from: "I copy no one," he says. "You have to be yourself. Once you are yourself, there is a place for you in the world market. That is why I don't only learn from musicians, I learn from life. From basketball, I learn how important is seconds: in five seconds the score can change two or three times; my brother's death teaches me how important is time; Chinese restaurants show me how they adapt everywhere they go without losing their taste. I look overall and I try to find this reaction in the music." This reaction, as Tunçboyacıyan describes it, is something personal and internal: "I don't look outside to find what it is; I know that it's in me. Outside is experience, inside is you. I communicate with life. I create my own form because I don't come from an academic background. It's not my way or the highway, but it's why I can call myself an avant-garde folk musician.
"When I talk about avant-garde folk," he expands, "it doesn't represent any country or religion, but when we talk about jazz, maybe for American people because they created it, it's not a psychological problem, but outside of America it's a big psychological problem because it's the big America in front of you. When you say avant-garde folk it's you and your imagination." Psychological problems can cut both ways, with some conservatives in America suspicious of European takes on jazz and any European jazz musicians who haven't yet found their voice, insecure about their relationship to this indigenous American music.
Nevertheless, Tunçboyacıyan has a clear take on the issue: "When black people created what I call that intellectual kind of the blues, they benefitted from European harmonic form. That's why European people feel jazz; I'm not talking about the form of jazz, I'm talking about the meaning of jazz. For me, it's the same in Turkey or America; you play what you survive, and you express yourself with sound. When they try to seize jazz as a form, the [trumpeter] Wynton Marsalis type of people, then it becomes old music. When my son hears that type of music, he says: "Oh Baba, that is old music," but when he hears 1940s [singer/bandleader] Louis Jordan, he feels that it's more advanced music."
Tunçboyacıyan's son Seto made Arto a grandfather 11 months ago, and Tunçboyacıyan senior cannot conceal his delight: "He's only eleven months old, but man, he's something! He's Jamaican, Armenian, Colombian and Greek mix. He is avant-garde. His name is London. You can look at the grandkids and think you get old or you can think it's a new beginning." Seto guests on Human Element, providing spoken word on the more somber "Think About It," in which he recalls the Armenian genocide of 1915 to the mid 1920s, when "the Turks stole two million souls on many, many nights." The numbers are disputedthough massive and only 20 countries officially recognize the genocide, but Tunçboyacıyan's mournful, blues- drenched duduk speaks the painful truth of his great-grandfather's death, along with hundreds of thousands of others.