Asaf Sirkis: The Endless Realm

Ian Patterson By

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'Play like it's your last gig; play like it's your last day on this earth.' I have always cherished that.
Asaf Sirkis 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 movie.

AS: [laughs] I know. Tassos Spiliotopoulos. Tassos is a really great musician. I met him through Mike Outram, the guitarist on the Inner Noise CDs

AAJ: 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 Influences

AAJ: 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]

AAJ: Let me take you back to Israel. Who were the important Israeli jazz figures when you were starting out?

AS: I've been lucky to play with some of the leading musicians in Israel. One whom I played with for some years is Albert Beger. He's a great saxophonist. Also Harold Rubin, a very interesting figure. He's a clarinetist, originally from South Africa, and he's an all-round artist. He's an architect; he's a painter, a poet, a composer, a musician, whatever. I worked with him for quite a few years when I was in Israel. Both Albert [Beger] and Harold [Rubin] were very important figures for me because I started to play with both of them when I was very young. I think I was 22 when I started to play with Harold. We did some albums together. He's quite amazing. He's in his 70s now, and he's still very active. A very energetic person.

AAJ: Israel has produced a steady stream of talented jazz musicians in recent years who now play outside the country. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the jazz idiom doesn't seem to have penetrated the Palestinian musical culture to the same degree. Is there a simple explanation for this?

AS: It's hard to say. Being in touch with some Palestinian musicians, like oud player Adel Salameh, who I recorded with when I came across to London, and others I've come across and played with, have a very, very strong musical background of their own culture. There's a beautiful tradition of Arab music, and playing with Adel Salameh, I learnt so much about that tradition. It's funny, you know here in London I learned how little I knew about it in Israel.

AAJ : That's not entirely surprising.

AS: Yeah, in Israel there is a kind of segregation, such a strong element of separation that you really don't get to understand what it's all about. When I came to London, it was a neutral ground to study a little bit of that amazing culture, that amazing music. Coming to London was for me a real eye-opener in many ways. The first thing I encountered was that I met my Palestinian neighbor, and I realized that we are talking here about people, and that was really great.

The other thing that I realized was what identity is really all about, the extent to which people are immersed in the idea of being somebody, and what it does to them. The difficulty with identity, I realized, is that when you go too far, at a certain point you become blind. You stop to see what is going on around you. Basically, for me, identity is a dream. It's a collection of ghosts from past lives of other people. It doesn't even belong to you. To say I am Israeli, or I am a jazz drummer—it's not yours, it's somebody else's and we cling on to it and say: that's mine. It's me. That is me. The whole idea of identity was a great revelation to me here. It changed the way I think about things.

AAJ: There's a great video on YouTube of Gilad Atzmon's Orient House Ensemble playing, I think it's "Autumn in Baghdad," with the Palestinian oud player/singer Nizzah Al-Issan, which is really very beautiful. Do you have any plans for further collaborations with Arab musicians, such as Adel Salameh?

AS: Not at the moment. If something like that comes along I would definitely do something with it. As far as my music is concerned, again, the music that comes out decides for me where I should put it. [laughs] If I go now and write a piece for oud and bandir, I'll play it with an oud and bandir. But if the music is for The Inner Noise or for the trio—and again, I don't write it for, that's just the way it comes out. So, no plans to collaborate, just to keep on writing music. I definitely feel that there is more to come from this new trio with Tassos and Yaron.

AAJ: You've described in previous interviews your three years of military service in Israel as a complete waste of time, but did it not inspire or provoke any reaction in you musically?

AS: Yes, it did. I think you've already mentioned it, that my music is a little bit dark. I think it might be one of the things that colored my activity as an artist. It had a tremendous effect on me. I can't ignore it really, even if I wanted to. All I wanted is to make music. In Israel there is a very strong social pressure on you to do a lot of very difficult things. It's quite extreme when you think about it, from the age of 18 to 21 you have to go and...

AAJ: Be a soldier.

AS: Exactly. The army is not a place where you learn about yourself or become mentally more mature or anything. I think that life presents us with enough challenges already. It's a killing machine. That's what an army is. Not only that, but it has a big effect on the social structure and the social behavior in Israel. And it's very difficult for someone who wants to make music, to make art, to deal with that. It was very difficult for me.

AAJ: Had you opted to be what they call a refusenik, if you had refused to do your military service, how might that have subsequently affected your career as a musician in Israel? Is there a lot of prejudice against people who refuse to do military service?

AS: There is and there isn't. Of course there is, but I know if I hadn't done my army service I would definitely be three years ahead in my musical career. A lot of musicians, or artists, a lot of people who don't want to do it, go to live somewhere else, or just don't do it. There are many ways not to do it, but I don't want to get into that. [laughs] Some of them are kosher, some of them are not. [laughs]

AAJ: I just wondered if perhaps refusing to serve later makes it difficult for musicians, or anybody, to get ahead professionally with whatever their career choice may be.

AS : It's not so much a problem in music, but if you're doing other jobs, like governmental jobs, then you have to do the army.

Inner Noise

AAJ: Let's get back to music. The Inner Noise project actually started in Israel with Adi Goldstein on organ and Amir Perleman on guitar. How did that idea for a church organ-centered trio come about?

AS: When I was in Israel I made my first album, One Step Closer, (Self Published, 1995) I had a trio then. But after recording the album, I immediately started to write new music, very different music. It was a real shift. Waking up the day after the recording session, I had the very strange feeling that I was somebody else. It was really quite eerie actually, and I started to write different music.

At that time I was listening a lot to the music of Olivier Messiaen, mainly listening to the organ works. I was absolutely obsessed with it. I would come home after a gig and I wouldn't listen to any jazz, or anything else, just Messiaen's organ works. [laughs] I was completely obsessed with that music for a long time, for two or three years. And I started to hear church organ in my head. I had a keyboard and when I wrote. I wrote church music. And I thought, "How about adding drums to it?" So, I tried it one day with Adi Goldstein, who is a very talented musician from Israel. Then we added a guitar, for the melody to come out. That is how The Inner Noise was born.

That project has been a strange one for me because it was always very difficult to gig with it. In Israel, we didn't have an organ. but we played with a specially adapted keyboard setup. The Inner Noise was a total flop in Israel, by the way. [laughs] Nobody really wanted to listen to it. I remember one gig in Israel in some kind of art center, quite a nice place with a good audience. I closed my eyes and before the first piece was finished I opened my eyes and everybody had gone, except my girlfriend at the time. [laughs] They just couldn't take it.

We did some church gigs in London and elsewhere, but it was difficult for that project to gig, because the music is so specific, and you have to find a venue with good acoustics. But we are doing some concerts here and there.

AAJ: That project was commissioned by the Arts Department of Tel Aviv City Council, and it reminds me that you receive support today for your touring from the Arts Council in England and the charitable organization Jazz Services Ltd. Could you tell us something about Jazz Services Ltd. and just how significant this support is to you and other musicians?

AS: Jazz Services is a really wonderful organization. Basically, it offers tour support for musicians in the UK, touring around the UK. It's the first time I applied for funding and I got it and it was really quite helpful. So you kind of cover the petrol expenses, the hotels and top-up the fees so they are kind of reasonable. It's really great. It's amazing that there is something like that.


AAJ: On the subject of touring, I see from your gig list that from September through to the 19th December 2008 you are playing about fifty gigs in no fewer than twelve different lineups. Do you ever look up from your drum set and think, "Oh it's these guys tonight!"

AS : [laughs] No, I've got quite a nice setup with a few bands that I play with. Most of these bands, like Gilad Atzmon, or [guitarist] Nicolas Meier or [saxophonist] Tim Garland's band, are bands that I've played with for a long time. We've made a lot of CDs together and done a lot of tours together. I love it when things integrate, musically crystallize in a certain voice.

I've been working with some great people here for a long time and I'm really glad about this. I like to keep busy, I like to play all the time, and I like to go out there. I make my living playing gigs, which I always wanted to do. It's what I dreamed about when I lived in Israel. It is a dream come true for me.

AAJ: Of all these gigs, and I counted 50, only five of them are the trio with Yaron and Tassos to promote The Monk. Why so few gigs to promote this album?

AS: It's because of a few reasons. One is because of my history as a solo artist. A lot of promoters are still not so sure they want to book me because they are a little bit afraid of the music, a little bit afraid of what I'm doing. When I came out with the first Inner Noise record, people were in shock and didn't know what to think about it at all. They looked at this drummer who came from Israel that played with Gilad Atzmon, a kind of Middle Eastern, jazz-fusion thing, [laughs] and with Adel Salameh, traditional Arabic music. So they expected it to have at least a world flavor, but it had nothing of that. Instead they got gothic jazz. [laughs]

Many people in the industry here were put off by that. I'm quite sure of that. So it's still a little bit of a struggle to get gigs. The second reason is just that I am extremely busy playing a lot of gigs. It's hard to find time in my schedule to do gigs or time where I can hustle for them. You need to be around to do it.


AAJ: When you came to London in '99 you hooked up with Gilad Atzmon fairly soon after, and you've been playing with him ever since in the Orient House Ensemble. He's obviously a tremendous musician, and he's also a courageously outspoken advocate of Palestinians' rights to a state, or a shared state. Does being in his band make it problematic for you to return to Israel and to gig there?

AS: No. For me it's not a problem to go to Israel. I go to Israel every year to see my family. I don't have any problems. Most of the people don't have a problem with me. I never encountered any kind of hostility. If I were Gilad himself, maybe I would be careful. [laughs]

AAJ: I was really quite struck by Gilad Atzmon's notes on the inner sleeve of Refuge (ENJA, 2007), where he says that he admits, or he recognizes, that he had been mistaken to think that music could be a successful messenger of peace in uniting, or reuniting, feuding peoples. Rather it is not the messenger, but the message itself. Would you care to comment on that?

AS: That's something that I've been talking about with Gilad for many years now. I have a very different take on the subject of what is going on in the Middle East, in that I really don't think, and I have never thought that music can change anything for people that can't be changed. If the change is already happening within you, then the music will be only a little trigger for that change to be a more inspired change. I really think there is nothing I can do to harm or to help. It might sound a bit harsh, but I really do feel that way. I do agree that there is nothing we can do to help except to inspire and to be inspired.

AAJ: I feel that the statement by Gilad, about music being not the messenger but the message, is one of the most beautiful statements ever made about music.

AS: Yes, really. Gilad is a very profound person .in that sense.

AAJ: As well as Gilad, you play and have played with another of the really great figures in jazz today, saxophonist Tim Garland. Can you compare Gilad and Tim's approach to making music? What have you learned from playing with them?

AS: Tim is a very different figure, I think. He's a very different kind of musician, and kind of person. Extremely different I would say. I find Tim an extremely inspiring person and musician, and mainly as a composer. In fact, the first tune on the album, "Stoned Bird," was kind of inspired by him in a way, by his energy and by his writing.

Tim is a tremendous composer. What really strikes me a bout Tim is that he's a real dreamer. If he gets up in the morning and thinks that he hears in his head a piece of music for a jazz trio and the London Symphony orchestra, the day after it will happen. He just makes his dreams come true. He is always full of new ideas, new things which he eventually does. It's not like he just pokes away at it.

Gilad is a very different person. He's more into playing with a band than playing with a project. The band has existed for many years now. He's more of a player/personality/entertainer. If you haven't seen him live, he's an immaculate entertainer. Really very sensitive, and quite amazing. Yes, Gilad and Tim are very different. You know, Tim hasn't got any political aspiration of any kind, or maybe he has but it's not in the music.

AAJ:To my ears you use the cymbals a lot. They are a fairly constant voice in your music. Is there a particular drummer whose cymbal work has influenced you?

AS: Jack DeJohnette was somebody who influenced me a lot, and he's got quite an amazing cymbal thing going on. The thing that really made me play that way is: the drums have very little sustain. It's like, "tomp!" And I've always wanted longer notes to be heard. The cymbals give that longer note. That relates a lot to the organ, for me. The organ can also have a very long sustain, unlike the piano, the harp or even the guitar. With an organ, you can sustain as long as you want. The length of the note was one of the things I really liked about it.

AAJ: The great [drummer] Roy Haynes described drumming as like riding a horse, letting the reins out a little bit, pulling them in, keeping it tight but loose. How would you describe drumming?

AS: I think the role of the drummer is a very psychological role. A drummer can provide a sense of spirit, a positive, complimentary spirit in the music that can uplift the music to another level, the way [drummer] Elvin Jones plays. He just lifts the spirit. If you listen to Roy Haynes playing with [saxophonist] John Coltrane. There's a lot of cymbal going on there, all the time. The cymbal is like the spirit, it's like the sea, it's like water the way it surrounds you with a positive environment in a sense.

Sun Ra

AAJ: You've cited Olivier Messiaen as an influence, particularly on The Inner Noise project. I'm interested to know about your relationship to [pianist/bandleader] Sun Ra, whom you quote on the inner sleeve of We Are Falling.

AS: I've been into Sun Ra's music, and a lot into his writing as well. I was always intrigued by his writing and poems and so on. The thing I like about that quotation is that it speaks about non-identity, about what it really is. We live our life, we are "something" and we go from point A to B. We've got a future and we've got a past and so on. Yet in a sense, all we are doing is just falling into a bottomless pit. [laughs] It sounds a bit ...

AAJ: Nihilistic?

AS: Maybe nihilistic, not so positive. But I do really feel that we do everything in our life to confirm something that doesn't actually exist. We are basically just falling and falling into a vast hole. [laughs]

AAJ: I'd better review my insurance policy. Have you seen the Sun Ra movie, the first one, from 30 years ago or so? There's this great scene where he walks into what looks like a Harlem youth center, where these young kids are shooting pool and hanging out, and he's dressed in his silver robe and hat and so on and says, "Greetings black youth of the planet earth. I am Sun Ra, ambassador from the intergalactic regions of the council of outer space." It's quite an entrance, and one teenager looks at him and responds, "Why are your shoes so big?" I thought that kind of summed up the incomprehension that surrounds him.

AS: [laughs] I've got the movie. The striking quotation is a scene when one of the kids asks him: "How do we know you're for real?" And he answers, "How do you know I'm for real? I'm not real. I am just like you." [laughs] He was quite a genius.

AAJ: Another video from YouTube, and it's from a concert with you, Yaron and Tassos in a Romanian restaurant in London...

AS: [laughs] Yeah, that's right.

AAJ:: You guys are playing your asses off to what looks like about ten people in the audience. This reminded me of a comment saxophonist Steve Marcus made to me a few years back at a very poorly attended gig. I felt sorry for the guy for the low turnout, and I asked him how it felt to play such a low-key gig. He said, "There's no such thing as a low-key gig." Can you relate to that comment at all?

AS: Sure. I am very passionate about music. Harold Rubin once said to me when I was very young: "Play like it's your last gig. Play like it's your last day on this earth." I have always cherished that. It is very important for me, and I am very excited about playing, wherever I'm playing, with whoever I'm playing.

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