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Arto Tuncboyacıyan: Mr. Avant-Garde Folk

Arto Tuncboyacıyan: Mr. Avant-Garde Folk
Ian Patterson By

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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).

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