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Cyminology: Exploring New Compositional Frontiers

John Patten By

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That's the good part in music--you never know how it will work out, but that's also the dangerous part because you never feel that you're a great composer because it's not in your hands to compose something; you really are depending on the inspiration.
After forming in 2002, Berlin-based Cyminology has been exploring the rich musical territory bound by the backgrounds of members Cymin Samawatie, pianist Benedikt Jahnel, drummer Ketan Bhatti and bassist Ralf Schwarz. Holding the foursome's unique tapestry of styles together is Samawatie's vocal and compositional work, built around classical Persian poetry, as well as her own writing.

The band began forging its sound after Samawatie started exploring her Iranian musical heritage. Moved by the power of the Persian music and poetry, Samawatie discovered new directions to pursue in her melodies. The elemental sounds of her Farsi lyrics, combined with the band's grounding in modern jazz styles, led to recognition and a host of awards for Cyminology, including winning the Jazz and Blues Award Berlin in 2004 and 2006, and the New Generation international jazz competition in 2003.

Now signed with ECM, As Ney delves further into the soundscapes Samawatie has written for the poems of Rumi, Hafiz and Forough Farrokhzad.

Those familiar with the band's self-produced per Se (Double Moon Records, 2005) and Bemun (Double Moon Records, 2007), produced by Frank Moebus, will find the band moving away from jazz-oriented compositions to more complex and subtle arrangements that still give the performers room to improvise.

Another change in the band's sound on As Ney resulted from working with ECM producer/label head Manfred Eicher, who helped sculpt the CD's sound both in the overall arrangement of the tunes, and the order of the tunes on the release.

All About Jazz: How did working with Manfred Eicher impact the recording?

Cymin Samawatie: I feel that when I'm the composer, when I'm the singer, and I'm involved in so much, it's really difficult for me to step outside. It relaxes me a lot when I know there's a person I can really trust and that I share his opinions and his taste, I mean it's about taste still, and I really do that with Manfred Eicher. I think we're really very close, and I'm very impressed with how close we are—I didn't expect that.

So for me, it gives me a very important calmness to focus on what I'm doing at that moment in the studio, because I know somebody else is taking care of other things. So that helps me to relax and to be there.

AAJ: How did he help with your compositions when recording the tunes?

CS: We had one rehearsal in Berlin with him and he made some [suggestions] and he said, "Maybe you want to repeat this part on this tune," or he said, "Maybe you want to leave the intro because the tune is so strong. It's great just to start with the voice and piano." That was the tune "As Ney" actually, and on another part he said, "Maybe you want to keep out the drum solo—it works great live but for the recording it might make more sense if we go in another [direction]."

He made some changes, but I was expecting more changes from him, and it feels great for the composer when you think you're working with a great person and you're waiting for him to do changes and then he doesn't do any. It gives you some confidence in the work that you do.

The other thing is that the music you play is influenced by what you hear. And how much you hear is influenced by the room that you play in, the instruments that you use and, of course, what you have for the mix in your headphones. So these are things that Manfred also has a gift for: for knowing which room is great for the music; knowing what we need in our headphones. This inspires us, and so that gives us a direction for the music and, of course, for the improvisation, too.

AAJ: How fully compose were the songs when you began recording them? Did you have them fully scored and written out?

CS: Each song had a different approach. If I think about the song "As Ney," a lot of it is written out. There's just one small passage where I wrote some changes and Benedikt is kind of improvising, but it's more like he's taking the melodic idea and putting it into the chords. Other than that, everything is arranged and written out.

There are other tunes, I can think of "Por Se Ssedaa," for example, "Sendegi" and I think there's a third one I don't remember right now, where I wrote a beginning, which is pretty much written out. Then I didn't write anything at all—it's really blank and I said, "Let's see where we go to let's just try out different things, but whatever we try it has to lead to this place." So then there's another place that I've written out that leads to the end. And I like that, too, to see what the musicians are making from it.

And to be honest, that's the really difficult part and the band is not always happy when I'm coming with those ideas, because then I have to make them write music at the moment.

l:r: Benedikt Jahnel, Cymin Samawatie, Ralf Schwarz, Ketan Bhatti

But if you do things that you don't do all the time, that's something—to go from an idea and have something blank and go back to another idea and give it a sense [of] corners—to connect those corners. And then [it's] the four of us—not only one musician doing it but four people doing it. Sometimes I did something, too, and it can happen that I sing along; it depends on the mood, it depends on the room, the audience and the mood that we are in.

That's what I like about jazz music—you have all the freedom to go for the freedom, but you also have the freedom to stick to some details that you worked on during rehearsal or during recording time.


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