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Arto Tuncboyacıyan: Mr. Avant-Garde Folk

Arto Tuncboyacıyan: Mr. Avant-Garde Folk

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Though a good number of notable jazz fusion bands and musicians have sprung up over the course of the last 40 years, the same few names from the '70s continue to serve as references—and sources of inspiration—in this, the second decade of the 21st century. Most notable are Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Tony Williams' Lifetime, Herbie Hancock and Return to Forever, which emerged from the shadow and guidance of trumpeter Miles Davis. Tribal Tech and Vital Information kept the fusion torch alight in the '80s and '90s, with the latter still going strong 28 years later, and the former soon to re-emerge with a new CD after a decade-long hiatus.

However, the greatest excitement in many years for legions of fusion fans has come with the formation of Human Element, a fusion supergroup of keyboardist Scott Kinsey, drummer Gary Novak, electric bassist Matthew Garrison and percussionist/vocalist Arto Tunçboyacıyan. Human Element made its live debut at the New Universe Music Festival in 2010, and its exhilarating debut recording, Human Element, (Abstract Logix, 2011) offers plenty of evidence that the glory days of fusion have been well and truly reignited.

Human Element draws from fusion's roots, in particular from the spirit of keyboardist/composer and Weather Report founder Joe Zawinul, though it plots a very personal course, which has a lot to do with the influence of the incombustible Armenian Tunçboyacıyan. His moving vocals, effervescent percussion— and, on one track, the mournful duduk—bring an extra dimension to the group's self- titled debut. He also brings a flavor not readily associated with much fusion music: the blues—Armenian style. "It's not about 'Do re mi fa so la ti do,'" says Tunçboyacıyan. "I'm Armenian, so the flavor is always going to be a little Armenian. I wanted to bring this kind of element to Human Element so we can have a wider sound and patience for our own creativity. I bring this to the music so people understand this band has an ideology of revolutionary creativity."

Revolutionary creativity: it's a phrase Tunçboyacıyan returns to repeatedly, and by which he seems to imply the qualities of a personal sound and original music. It's a term he uses freely when talking about his co-members in Human Element. "When you have guys like Gary, Scott and Matt around you, they all have their own musical vision and a revolutionary approach. They are themselves."

The pedigree of the musicians in Human Element is unquestionable. Kinsey, a key member of modern-day fusion legends Tribal Tech, and ex-Zawinul Syndicate, is one of the most instantly recognizable keyboard players around. Garrison, also ex-Zawinul Syndicate and John McLaughlin collaborator, is at the forefront of the modern electric bass, and Novak, ex-Chick Corea's Electric Band, is a tumultuous, polyrhythmic drummer with few peers.

They, in turn, are quick to recognize Tunçboyacıyan's qualities: "He's just a wellspring," says Kinsey. "The guy can just open his mouth and sing something and it's a tune. Or he can play rhythm and it's something great. It just pours out of him." Garrison is equally effusive when talking about Human Element's master percussionist and vocalist: "Arto is one of those rare artists that have an ability to foresee the outcome of a piece in its totality from one listen."

Growing up in the Turkey of the 1960s and '70s, Tunçboyacıyan had a keen appreciation of, and hungry ear for, new music. As he recalls, it was something of a rare commodity: "Where I grew up, one guy would have a record player, and if somebody had one album we'd drive two hours to sit down and listen. Even as a musician, I didn't have my first cassette player until '79 or '80. We would walk, take the bus and drive anywhere to hear any music with that pulse." Any music with that pulse— it almost defines Tunçboyacıyan's all-embracing approach to his craft. "As long as there is quality, creativity, revolution"—that word again—"it doesn't matter what sound it is for me. I enjoy variety."

This love of musical variety has lead Tunçboyacıyan to a host of quite diverse projects; from the Armenian Navy Band—a 12-piece orchestra playing the leader's compositions, inspired by Armenian and Anatolian tradition— to the percussion group of Sjahin During, Afro Anatolia, and to recording dates with Argentinean bandoneon maestro Dino Saluzzi, big-selling rock group System of a Down, and fusion guitarist Al Di Meola. Just this year, he won a Grammy in the New- Age Music category as part of the Paul Winter Consort's Miho: Journey to the Mountain (Living Music, 2010).

Undoubtedly, Tunçboyacıyan's openness stems from the multicultural nature of Turkey and its unique geographic location, with one foot in Europe and another in Asia. For centuries, the country has existed as a cultural crossroads and a trade hub, not only between Europe and Asia but with Africa as well. Tunçboyacıyan grew up in this melting pot, and internalized the disparate influences, even if he was unable to distinguish them clearly at the time or understand why they sounded so familiar to him: "It was peculiar for me why am I feeling this way and why are all these things coming out," he says. The percussive miniature "Speak with Your Eye" on Human Element is a clear example of these influences, with its vibrant rhythms echoing more than one continent, though particularly Africa. "We had here in Anatolia, 2000 years ago, those types of drum ceremonies," Tunçboyacıyan explains, with the benefit of several decades of hindsight. "There are a lot of drum ceremonies in Anatolia. I believe everybody has this millions-of-years-old information in their body and soul. That comes out."

Tunçboyacıyan has found these common ancestral traits wherever he has traveled: "When I went to South America and played with native people," he says, "when they played that beat, I felt it was like it was what I was playing all my life. I found the same thing in Africa, and the funny thing is I find the same thing in Irish music. Later I learned that they [Irish] came from the Balkans, passing through Asia Minor, and they brought the first boiled grain, which is warm beer, to Ireland from Anatolia." The Irish would maybe become a little defensive if they thought that claim to the origins of their famous stout lay elsewhere, but certainly linguistic scientists can attest to the links between the modern Gaelic language and language spoken in the Balkans and Asia Minor, many drunken nights ago. "When people move, they bring their food, dress, language and music," states Tunçboyacıyan with beautifully simple logic.

In spite of not owning his own cassette recorder, Tunçboyacıyan was already a seasoned recording artist in Turkey and throughout Europe, when he decided to move to the USA in 1981, to explore new musical avenues, with his dress, language and music in tow. In New York, where he still resides, Tunçboyacıyan came face to face with jazz musicians, though once again, the language was not unfamiliar to him at the most basic level: "When I was growing up, people were playing Coltrane, but I didn't know anything about the jazz form," he says. "But I understood they were expressing their own lives through their music, playing what they'd survived."

When he first arrived in this new country, where everybody had a cassette recorder and a record player to boot, Tunçboyacıyan had little choice but to express himself with sound: "The problem was the English language, not playing music," he remembers. It wasn't long before he began working with some big names, though for someone who was playing with trumpeter Chet Baker without knowing who he was, this is not how Tunçboyacıyan saw it at the time: "When I was playing with Chet Baker, I was playing with people in Turkey at that level. Right away you recognize people are at that level even if you don't know their name. I had many experiences where I didn't know their name, but from the first note you can recognize their quality and how unique they are."

The 11 years Tunçboyacıyan spent as a studio musician provided him with much of the new experience that had lured him to the States in the first place: "The people around me had ingested Coltrane and Miles Davis in their own world," he says, "and you absorb that. You recognize revolution and individual creativity—different colors, different flavors— but the process is the same."

Tunçboyacıyan's own colors and flavors graced recordings by a host of jazz musicians in those early years, but the memory of one collaboration excites him all these years later: "Oh, Arthur Blythe!" he exclaims with obvious relish, recalling his first encounter with the great alto saxophonist: "That's another experience. I met Arthur Blythe in a kitchen in Brooklyn; I didn't speak English. I see this guy. We were two percussionists and a saxophonist. It was early morning. We smoked together, then he took out his brand new instrument—in my experience, it was brand new where I come from. When he started playing, my jaw dropped because I'd never heard that tone before.

"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 disputed—though 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.

"The instrument comes from so much pain," Tunçboyacıyan explains. "I'm not a duduk player; my fingering is all wrong. I just use it to bring out what I'm thinking in my head. Armenian folk form is almost like the African harmonic folk form. It's also like the blues. Where I come from, they hate me because of my identity; that's like black people, native people here, Hispanic people, or this people or that people, or ghetto people. We are related because somebody hates you because of your identity, but you react through art instead of weapons. "Everybody has their own blues," he reflects. "Everybody who got hammered has the blues."

Human Element was not an easy project to get off the ground, as all the members are leaders in their own right and have various projects on the go. However, Tunçboyacıyan, like the other members, feels that there is a special chemistry in this quartet, and the plan is to take it ahead. It's possible to imagine a saxophone or guitar in this music, something that Tunçboyacıyan doesn't rule out: "We may bring in other musicians later; I think it might be that type of band. But it's just the four of us now, and we need to play together for a couple of years." And that is good news for lovers of jazz fusion, or avant-garde folk music, and good news too for all those who would let their imagination take them inside the creative revolution that Tunçboyacıyan and Human Element are leading.

Selected Discography

Human Element, Human Element (Abstract Logix, 2011)
Paul Winter Consort, Miho: Journey to the Mountain (Living Music, 2010)
Armenian Navy Band, Under Your Thoughts (Svota Music, 2009)
YashAr, Nefrete Kine Karsi (Arma Music, 2009)
Scott Kinsey, Kinesthetics (Abstract Logix, 2006)
Armenian Navy Band, How Much is Yours? (Svota Music, 2006)
Arto Tunçboyacıyan & Vahagn Hayrapetyan, Love is Not in Your Head (Svota Music/Heaven and Earth, 2005)
System of a Down, Toxicity (American, 2001)
Matthew Garrison, Matt Garrison (GJP, 2000)
Arto Tunçboyacıyan, Every Day is a New Life (Living Music, 2000)
Al Di Meola World Sinfonia, Grande Passion (Telarc, 2000)
Armenian Navy Band, Bzdik Zinvor (Svota Music, 1999)
Oregon, Northwest Passage (Intuition, 1997)
Arthur Blythe, Night Song (Clarity, 1997)
Joe Zawinul, Stories of the Danube (Polygram Records, 1996)
Joe Zawinul, My People (Escapade Records, 1996)
Arto Tunçboyacıyan, Main Roots (Keystone/Svota Music, 1994)
Marc Johnson,Right Brain Patrol (Polygram Records, 1993)
Dino Saluzzi, Mojotoro (ECM, 1991)
Arthur Blythe, Hipmotism (Enja, 1991)
Arto Tunçboyacıyan, Virgin Land (Keystone/Svota Music, 1989)
Night Ark, Picture (RCA/Novus, 1986)

Photo Credits
Pages 1, 3: Vikas Nambiar
Page 2: John Kelman
Page 4: Courtesy of Abstract Logix

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