Since arriving in London from Israel at the end of the end of the '90s, Asaf Sirkis has earned a reputation as one of the world's premier drummers. His scintillating stick work has sparked saxophonist Gilad Atzmon's Orient House Ensemble since its inception, as well as coloring the projects of saxophonist Tim Garland in recent years.
Yet this sensitive, cerebral drummer, who has drawn favorable comparison to legends Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette, is not easy to pigeonhole. His own projects, particularly The Inner Noise church-organ/guitar/drums trio, are as creative as they are perhaps unusual, and Mark Sirkis as an original creative force. As at home in the jazz idiom as he is in a traditional Middle Eastern one, Sirkis' new trio of guitarist Tassos Spiliotopoulos and bassist Yaron Stavi charters new territories on The Monk
(SAM, 2008). Lyrical, subtle music, underpinned and shaped by Sirkis' searching drumming, it is an utterly distinctive listening experience.All About Jazz:
Who is The Monk?Asaf Sirkis:
For me, being a musician has always been a little bit like being a monk. It's something spiritual I think.AAJ:
Do you mean that music is like a calling to you?AS:
No, I don't think it's a calling. It's definitely something that I always wanted to do. From a very early age I realized that was what I am going to do. Music for me is a window onto another realm. It gives me legitimacy to be who I really am. When you are there, you feel at home, but at home not in a sense of a place or a place in time, in a sense of something much more familiar than that even.AAJ:
Tell us a little about the writing process for this album.AS:
I had tendonitis for a period of time two years ago and I stopped playing for a while. It was very difficult for me because my whole life was built around my occupation as a musician and my love for music. I couldn't play, but I could write and I wrote the music for The Monk
and also The Song Within,
(SAM, 2007) which is my favorite album with my other band, The Inner Noise.
When I write music I am trying to concentrate on not interfering with it. What I do basically is I improvise and record myself. Improvising, and not worrying about anything that needs to come out as a tune. If I have a great idea and need to develop it, well, I don't develop anything. I improvise and then edit. Of course 99 percent of my improvisation I don't use. So I'm not really a composer, I am an improviser and an editor of my improvisations. That's what I do.AAJ:
The music on The Monk
is quite minimal. Was that your concept from the outset?AS:
Again, when I write music I do not have any concept or any idea. If anything, if I have an idea about writing music I would stop writing music. I've said this before, but to me music starts when ideas finish. I try to write music as if it is a blank page and not to come with any ideas. If you try to do it, there is someone who is trying to do it. [laughs] It's either there or not. That is why I improvise so much because basically I am waiting for that second, for that shift to happen, and when it happens the music comes out.AAJ:
There's a slightly dark, edgy feel to a lot of the music on The Monk
which reminds me, particularly in the guitar chords, of guitarist John McLaughlin's playing in the first Mahavishnu Orchestra. Is that a fair comparison?AS:
Yeah, definitely the music I am playing is colored by that: John McLaughlin, (guitarist) Allan Holdsworth and some of the prog-rock bands. I was really fascinated by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Allan Holdsworth, the I.O.U
album. (Restless Records, 1985) This music basically changed my life.AAJ:
Drummer/keyboardist Gary Husband guests on the album, and brings some lovely playing, particularly on "The Monk" and "Dream," playing which is quite Joe Zawinul-like. Could you tell us a little about your relationship with Gary Husband?AS:
Gary is a good friend. He's one of the greatest musicians around, and in music theory too. I've been listening to his drumming, his piano playing, his theory, for many years now and I have been influenced by his drumming. I met Gary in Israel when he played the Jazz on The Red Sea festival, which I played when I was living in Israel as well. I think it was '98 when he came down to the Eilat festival on the Red Sea with Allan Holdsworth, which was a really great thing for me after all those years of listening to Allan Holdsworth.
Believe it or not, I transcribed everything he played on four or five of Allan Holdsworth's albums and I gave him quite a large book when he arrived to Eilat. We had a long chat in the hotel we were both staying in. We're in touch. I play with him occasionally and we meet sometimes. It's been really exciting to get to know him as a person.
I think his contribution to the album is immense. He makes the album special. Of course the trio is a wonderful thing, but he adds another dimension to it. Although we haven't played together that much we connect in some kind of strange way. It was never an effort for me to play with him, although he's an immaculate musician. When you play with somebody at that level, usually you're in awe of the talent and the capability, but with Gary somehow it feels like home, again.AAJ:
The inclusion of the piano piece, "The Bridge," as lovely as it is, seems an odd inclusion in the context of the music of the album as a whole.AS:
Initially, I was planning Gary would play a piano introduction, just a short thing as an introduction to the piece "Dream," but he improvised in the studio and it was so beautiful I thought: "OK, I'm going to take this and make it as a separate piece." I also thought it would be great to have a sonic rest after the title track, which is quite long. I thought it would be really nice to have the piano playing after that.AAJ:
I'm interested about the photograph in the inner sleeve of the bridge in Heidelberg. Is there a story behind that photo?AS:
Definitely. When I designed the cover I was looking for an idea. I have a friend, an Israeli artist who lives in Holland, his name is Nissim Men. He's a good friend and he gave me a reproduction of one of his works. It's called "Anonymous." I was looking for an image on the Internet, and I lifted my head and there was the reproduction of one of his works [laughs]. I thought, ok, that's the one! It sparked something in my mind, and with the monk thing it's connected. There is something about being a monk, that spiritual search which is very anonymous. You stop being yourself, but in a sense you are your true self.
He also has another series of work, which is basically his impression of cities from around the world. It's like a photo-shop collage. It looks a little bit wrong when you look at it, and then when you look at it better you see so many details. There's a lot of mystery in that, and I really loved that image. It really connected to the idea of Gary Husband coming to play on the album. Somehow, and I named Gary's piece "The Bridge." Having Gary play on the album was very special and unique moment for me, and his improvised piece, that bridge, was a very important point on the album.AAJ:
The musicians on the album, bassist Yaron Stavi you have of course played with for a number of years in Gilad Atzmon's Orient House Ensemble, but tell us something about guitarist Tassos Spiliotopoulos. I have to say I love his name, he sounds like a baddie from a Tin Tin
[laughs] I know. Tassos Spiliotopoulos. Tassos is a really great musician. I met him through Mike Outram, the guitarist on the Inner Noise CDsAAJ:
A tremendous guitarist. Mike Outram has been a real find for me.AS:
Indeed, yes. I think he's one of the best guitarists anywhere. Tassos was studying with Mike, and Mike recommended I use Tassos whenever he couldn't do a gig. I met Tassos and we had a little play, a rehearsal before one of the Inner Noise gigs, and I said to myself: this is not just the best boy of Mike, he is a bit more than that. I had in mind to do something with him for a couple of years. And we finally did this trio and I'm very happy that he's a part of it.
I and Yaron are also members of Tassos's quartet. He's also an amazing composer. We did a CD for him, Wait for Dusk
(Konnex, 2006). About Yaron, of course I've known him for a few years since we've been playing with Gilad. He's also from Israel, although I didn't play with Yaron while he was in Israel. I met him in Europe and started playing with him here. We've played a tremendous amount of gigs over the years with Gilad's band. We used to play an average of 150 gigs a year with Gilad's band, so there's a very strong bond there. Like Tassos, Yaron's an amazing musician.Musical InfluencesAAJ:
Does it please you that music journalists struggle to give a name to the music you make, particularly The Inner Noise project, or is it a source of annoyance?AS:
I'm not annoyed by it, neither am I happy. Of course it's nice to be unique or whatever you call it. Sound travels in me and when it hits the page it sounds in a certain way and that's what I have in my mind.AAJ :
Your music does sound refreshingly unique. Do you think this is down to the fact that you started writing your own material at a relatively early age?AS:
Well, no. I think it's hard to say why the music I write sounds the way it sounds, except for my influences and so on. I think it's because I never let anything interfere with my writing. As a drummer, I went to study with a drum tutor for many years and practiced and transcribed, and I still do.
I still practice and I still try to develop my playing, but when it comes to writing, it's a sacred thing. I don't try to touch it. I don't try to improve it, I don't try to learn more, and I don't try to write for anything. I write for nothing and music comes from nothing. It was always sacred for me, that element in music. I don't let any, how can I say, conceptual contamination enter. That sounds a bit much, maybe, but I've always been a bit extreme about that. That's why I think the music I wrote from a very early stage took its own road, and never came back. [laughs]