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Bojan Z: Stranger Sounds

Ian Patterson By

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When you are made for this that is what you are doing on this earth and you do it till the day you die.
Bojan ZDid a B-52 full of Fender Rhodes really crash near a small Serbian village a quarter of a century ago? What's a Steinway full of holes doing at a jazz festival? What is the connection between Jim Hall and the Dixie Chicks? And just who would pay $6,000 for a bottle of wine? European Jazz Artist of the Year 2005 and pianist extraordinaire Bojan Z has all the answers and in a candid interview talks about life and death (but mostly life), the paradoxes of American jazz, mediums, identity, the poor old CD and his latest recording Xenophonia (Label Bleu, 2006).

All About Jazz: You've come through Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia on this tour—are these new countries for you as a musician?

BZ: Yeah, actually all of them are new—they were a complete discovery. From Vietnam I know musicians that live in France, and I know people who are representative of this culture, but this has nothing to do with the fact that you go in a country and see it straight, first-hand observation. So that was very nice.

AAJ: Is there any difference to you as a musician playing to an audience who maybe don't know your music, I'm thinking of places like Vietnam and Cambodia, compared to playing to the converted at say, the Paris Jazz Festival where they know and appreciate your music? Is there any difference in the way you play?

BZ: Actually I started in Tokyo. That was the fourth time I was there, so you know the way the Japanese audiences are—once they grab you they don't leave you. They really have this long-term relationship thing which is...great! So I started playing this tour in front of an audience that actually knew everything about me, you know, even more than me! They're crazy! So I could really compare in an obvious way the difference but I didn't change many things in what I play, thinking 'this is the audience who don't know me'. There is a difference for me, challenges, because those who don't know me certainly need some more time to get into the story. The energy I get back from the audience can be different.

AAJ: When you are touring unfamiliar places, do your day to day experiences, the sights and sounds, does that enter your music at all in concert in the evening?

BZ: Of course, of course. In general that's where I find my inspiration, in life. One thing I know for sure my inspiration is life and not death. It's interesting, that I know for sure from those few years of war, you know, there was death all over the place—nothing artistic was coming out of this. But life! Ahhh! You know, colors, people, food and nature, smells, the sounds of course. I'm very, how do you say, sensitive to it? So I'm sure that in some way or another this inspires the musical playing every day.

AAJ: I notice in your music, in your playing, a great sense of fun.

BZ: Myself, yeah. At least I'm having a hard time hiding it. Maybe I should hide it more but I don't think so. I'm having fun. You know, it's this old thing about "Duende —if it's there then I'm having fun, if it's not there then I'm sweating my ass, as they say.

AAJ: Your new album Xenophonia has been received by critics as quite a departure from what you've recorded up until now.

BZ: There are differences in the way it was done and there are differences certainly in the end result, compared to the rest of what I've done, but for me it's a complete continuation of the things that I was launching already. For me it's not 'now I stop what I was doing and do something completely different', I just took more time to work on the sound—the vertical dimension—the colors, the profundity, which sound goes where. For example, on some of the instruments I play, I had this set-up which was acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes and customized Fender Rhodes which gives me quite a lot of possibilities sound-wise— mixing the piano with Fender Rhodes which I already did onTranspacifik (Label Bleu, 2003). That's why I say it is a continuation; I already had these ideas for that record which was like, two or three years ago. The Fender Rhodes that I had in the studio was really not good so I didn't use it. I organized myself and I had two of them! [laughs] In general, about the performance, we were all working on textures and sounds more than who's going to be the fastest, that's where the difference for me is.

I played with guys like Ben Perowsky, who is a drummer from Brooklyn who is actually in my working trio since just after the release of Transpacifik.. So I just wanted to get into the studio and do something and the good thing was I didn't have the obligation, a luxury given to me by Label Bleu, to come out of the studio with a CD in my hand, you know. So what we did was just sit and play. I had a few tunes that were supposed to be tunes but the rest was just playing with the tape turning and that's it. Then it took like six months to listen to it at home with the multi-track while I'm imagining the thing afterwards. Then in the meantime Ben Perowsky stopped. He had many obligations back in the States and Ari Hoenig took the role and we did the second recording six months after the first. In the meantime I had composed some tunes and we did the same thing, just playing and seeing what was there. So I ended up with quite a lot of material and then I was obliged to put this material down on the famous form of CD, which was 60 minutes. Don't make it more than 60 minutes! That's at least what most producers think. So that's the short story about it.

For me the important thing, the year of work, more than a year of work on this CD corresponds to a very... I wouldn't use the term "heavy but very full year of my life—full of changes, with life and death. My daughter was born, my Dad died, I got married for the second time, I moved to a new place, changed manager. I mean, it's like everything you can imagine changed in this one year. As Mingus used to say of his LP releases, he would always put a sticker with a quote from himself: (imitates Mingus) "This is the best recording I've ever made!" So this is exactly what I'm doing—"this is the best record I ever made! [laughs]

AAJ: The xenophone sounds like a joke. What exactly is it?

BZ: I bought my first Fender Rhodes in ' 81 in a bar in a village next to Belgrade and the funny thing is that a few years ago, knowing that in Belgrade I can eventually find a Fender Rhodes cheap I called my brother to try to find something there and he found actually the same village. But he found just the shell of a Fender Rhodes and just a few keys. It was the wife of a bassist who had died and she found herself with ten euros in her pocket and fifty guitars and instruments that the guy left. So basically, I bought this for 300 euros, the price more or less of a complete Fender Rhodes and it was more to help this woman out.

And there I found the idea, you know. I like these coincidences that can have some meaning or not at all, but for me the fact that it was 25 years later in the same village that I found it. It's like, what happened here? Was there a B-52 with Fender Rhodes which fell down here? Anyway, what I did was I started buying all the parts on e-bay and basically I had different vintages and different years and while I was putting this thing together I kept all the imperfections. I actually wanted every note to sound different because it was not the point to have to have just another Fender Rhodes—I was dreaming about having an instrument that I could tamper with for Arabic scales or scales coming from cultures other than European for quite some time.

With a piano you cannot do it because you have to have your own tuner. It's impossible. But I thought finally, that's what I'm going to do with this guy; it's easier to learn how to tune it, instead of having to find some effects, distortion, treating it like a guitar and thing like this you know. That's why I call it "xenophone. Why? Besides the connection to the name of the record—it's the reaction I get every time I plug it in and play something on it and I observe the reaction from most of the people—it's like some stranger, some naked stranger has walked in. Ahh!! What isthis?!

AAJ: Xenophonia?

BZ: It was one of those words that cross your mind and you die laughing, but the more I was thinking about it the more I was like, this is a concept, this is not a joke. I'm living in France in a period of my life where it's exactly the same time that I was living in Belgrade. Recently I had a funny situation as I married a Dutch woman which somehow put me off the tracks of becoming a real Frenchman, which I was, because she is clearly not interested in my French side, she is much more interested in my Yugoslav origins. That really compromised my French integration, which is doing fine, but the funny thing is when you start criticizing things about France, which actually is a French national sport, they do it all day long. So I've done my exams, I have my diploma of somebody who has the right to do this but if I do it a bit too much—it happened with my ex-wife, which is more logical, and my best friend too who just happened to say: "Well, if you don't like it here go there and maybe it will be better.

And it was like, did you hear yourself? Just listen to yourself! Are you telling this to me? You know that I'm not completely French. Fuck you! But it was very significant because the thing is when I go to Belgrade when I meet the guys there, they're all like "Bojan, he's French; he's been living there for 20 years. So many things have changed. Which is true, but at the same time I am doing more for the music from there than any of them, just because I'm more in the spotlight than they are. So it's a funny position. You know, I guess Miles Davis never had this thing to deal with in life. He managed to be a star in his own country.

AAJ: He had a lot to deal with though.

BZ: He had a lot to deal with but he didn't have to deal with not going there, not living there, and things like this. What I'm sure is that I won't go back to Belgrade to live because the more I'm waiting for it to become normal the more it's getting smaller and smaller. It's hard to imagine what's there for me. So it's like I'm some sort of perpetual stranger. So that goes with the title—the sound of a stranger, or strange sound—however you want. But the thing is I know that many guys would not see this and the word would have the negative effect for them which is "xenophobia and that is what has happened. I have so many guys... "About this title, Xenophobia... [laughs]. Read it again. Then I'll help you prepare your questions again—see you in a week. [laughs]

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