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Mircea Tiberian: The Natural Force of Music

Adriana Carcu By

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Pianist Mircea Tiberian is an emblematic figure of Romanian jazz, with a prodigious musical and academic career. He plays an influential role in the jazz scene and as author of many theoretical studies and essays, fosters its development on the theoretical level as well. Along his 40 year career Tiberian has played with top ranking Romanian jazz musicians and with quite a few Western ones such as Randy Brecker Chris Dahlgren, John Betsch, Maurice de Martin and Christian Lillinger. Educated in the classical tradition, the pianist followed the energetic and intellectual line of instrumental expressivity established by McCoy Tyner and Thelonious Monk in developing his specific instrumental voice. His sound combines the clarity of tone with suggestive elusiveness that results in a perfectly balanced inner dynamism. He has recently released a trio album with Chris Dahlgren and John Betsch entitled Both Sides of the River.

All About Jazz: Tell us about your musical upbringing.

Mircea Tiberian: My relation with improvisation began at a very early age. As a pupil in the music school I exasperated my teachers with my improvisations before I even knew what jazz was. I started playing the piano at 4 or 5. My family was not involved with the arts, but for some reason there was a piano in our house, a pretty good one too. I never knew how it got there.

AAJ: When did you know that you were going to be a musician?

MT: It never occurred to me that I could be anything else. I think that the idea ripened when I was about 14. I was lucky too, because at that time I had received a special jury prize at a piano contest and I became a sort of star of the little high school I was attending.

AAJ: What was your first contact with jazz music?

MT: I was about 10 when one of my piano teachers gave me a jazz record. I think that was the first jazz album released in Romania, the big band of the University of Illinois. When I was 18, I started going to the jazz club in my hometown, Sibiu, a club with a high musical standard, where a lot of contemporary jazz was played. So, you can say that I started listening to jazz with Coltrane. Not long after that I started playing too, but I wasn't very happy because in those times in the Eastern European countries the jazz bands were playing mostly Dixie. I decided to get back to classical music and I abandoned jazz until I was 26. First I focused on Bach for two or three years—a real adventure—and then I started realizing that I needed to get closer to contemporaneity and I started with Mozart. It wasn't a very big leap, but it went faster.

AAJ: When did you start playing jazz again?

MT: After I graduated from the Music School in 1986, I started playing in Club Nord -a jazz club in Bucharest, near the main train station. The club wasn't official, but everybody knew about it, and jazz lovers were coming from all over the country. Here I started inviting Western musicians like Randy Brecker and Guido Manusardi. After the Romanian revolution in 1989 they closed it down.

AAJ: How did the jazz life change in Romania after the revolution?

MT: In the first six months we had quite a few international gigs. While I was trying to ground a Romanian Jazz Association, the students from the Music School in Bucharest voted for the opening of a jazz section and proposed me as the chairman. The staff of the faculty was quite uneasy at the beginning because I used to be pretty rebellious as a student. Luckily, I got a scholarship in the US and I could do some documentation on creative schools, so that soon I started the first jazz section at the Bucharest Conservatory. Today, when I read the statistics, I can see that 90 percent of the jazz musicians have passed through that section.

AAJ: When did your start your first group?

MT: In 1996 when Romania freed itself from the Russian influence I started interacting more actively with Western musicians and I grounded a group meant to connect the Western and Eastern musical cultures by means of jazz and ethnic music. The group was called Interzone and the aim was to make a synthesis out of the joint musical heritage. We were all educated in the classical spirit and as a European it is a pity not to make the best of that background. Besides, the musicians from the Balkans, Moldavia, Ex Soviets, Poland and Bulgaria, are very close to traditional music as well.

AAJ: How is your rapport with the Romania traditional music?

MT: I wasn't born in the country and I played traditional music only for money, which doesn't mean that you can't play it well. I studied the cultivated folklore, through the Romanian traditional music school, which has got at the top George Enescu, and a few other very good composers, who unfortunately are not that well known. I have played their works in the faculty. Their works have a vision and a harmonization that is way above what we understand today under ethno style.

AAJ: What is your musical affiliation?

MT: From my Bach studies I have acquired a certain naturalness of the melody, of the harmonic thinking, from Beethoven the energy, from Mozart the simplicity, and I was influenced of course by the language of the neo-romantics, especially Debussy, and by the creative power of Bela Bartok.

AAJ: And in jazz?

MT: The great swing men Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and Oscar Peterson, who I cannot imitate, much as I try, because through them I understood what swing really means. Although is sounds corny, I was always impressed by John Coltrane's personality, who was a central figure of the jazz agora. He had gathered all the major influences and had that attitude, so characteristic for jazz, to reinvent himself again and again, and he had done it in a most deliberate manner.

AAJ: Your tone has a crystalline clarity with an edge, which renders a very dynamic note to your playing. Where do these volatile notes come from?

MT: It is the first time that I hear it, but I think it's true. When I play classical music I have a quite velvety tone, but in jazz I have followed more percussive models, like McCoy Tyner, who has quite a violent touch and focalises on the left hand. As far as the intellectuality of the phrasing goes, I am very close to Thelonious Monk. I think that creates the edge you mentioned.

AAJ: How far back goes the jazz club tradition in Romania?

MT: The first jazz club was founded in the 1960s but the clubs in the communist times had a semi-legal status and were considered both ill famed and elitist, depending on the perspective, but the music you could hear there was good nevertheless. After the revolution the club culture flourished along with the many jazz festivals we have today. The first jazz festival was held at the beginning of the 1970s in my hometown, Sibiu. Nowadays, Sibiu is hosting an avantgarde jazz festival.

AAJ: What is, in your opinion, the main characteristic of European Jazz?

MT: We, the Europeans, have a quite different perspective on jazz due to the classical culture that influences the musical thinking, and the saddest thing is to try and imitate American jazz, because, that is simply not possible. This happens mainly in the music schools. I am not saying that it is not important to work your way through the history of jazz, but this has to be done up to a certain age. You cannot write like Mozart at 25. This is something that happens intuitively. The phases of musical understanding are the same and they must be pursued in their good time. To keep on jumping from bossa-nova to Charlie Parker and then to Billie Holiday for 40 years is a sad thing to do.

AAJ: You have a 40 year career as a jazz musician. Could you define your creative phases?

MT: The first phase, intuitive and quite rebellious, was in high school, and it was followed by a traditionalist, even classical, phase after which came the "back to the roots" phase; not to my own musical roots but the roots of jazz. All along I was a great fan of alternative rock. And then, around 1996, by the time when I thought that I was playing quite decent mainstream jazz, I realized that I had to put more into the music I was playing if I wanted to call it mine. That was a solid phase in which I started combining zonal classical elements (Enescu, Bartok) with jazz. After 4-5 years this was followed by an avant-garde phase, which was so wild that once, in a Stockholm jazz club, somebody told me that it was the most awful music he ever heard. Even if the owner of the club assured me that that was a compliment I realized that it was a pity not to use my musical knowledge to the fullest. Now I am free and I can go any direction I want. For the public it is not always easy, because most of the time it expects a clear gender affiliation. To play what you like is not always a free ticket to fame.

AAJ: Are there any significant encounters that influenced your approach to music?

MT: Yes, I had two such encounters. One, before my career had even started, with Johnny Raducanu, a Romanian jazz legend, who used to play double bass and later piano. That gave a serious twist to my musical orientation. I was about 19 when I sent him a tape and chance had it that he listened to it and got me literally on stage playing with one of the best combos of the time at the Sibiu Jazz Festival. The second encounter was with a painter, not a musician. Mid 1990s I met this guy who was quite well off, and who posed a significant question—he asked me how much of myself was in what I was playing and then made me a deal. He offered me $100 for each gig in which I played what I wanted. At first I thought it was easy and then I realized that I didn't know what I wanted. That started a whole process, which after a while had as a result my first album, a kind of mixture of personal elements with mainstream jazz.

AAJ: In what band projects are you involved today?

MT: I have quite a few projects running. One of them has been functioning for about 10 years now. It is a trio with Chris Dahlgren on double bass, an American musician of classical formation living in Berlin, and with John Betsch on drums, another American, living in Paris. John can play swing in a non-traditionalist manner, because although formed in the spirit of traditional jazz, he was always open to avantgarde. John has played with Steve Lacy and with Archie Shepp, and he has played a lot with Mal Waldron, and Chris has played with Anthony Braxton. So they make together a happy mixture, which is quite a benefit for music that requires a lot of improvisation. As for myself, although I am not a fervent promoter of avantgarde, I think that it is a limitation not to use a chord or the atmosphere of a mode or a scale or that of a certain rhythm. So, we make a trio with different visions but good functionality. We can play together without rehearsing. I also play in duo formula with Liviu Butoi, a very expressive Romanian flute and saxophonist with whom I have a long lasting and very fruitful collaboration. We play mainly in churches. His kind of expressivity matches perfectly the expressiveness of the church organ, which is somehow mechanical. Lately I have done a few things with a young German drummer, Christian Lillinger, a very frisky futuristic musician.

AAJ: How did you start playing the church organ? What is the main difference there from piano or keyboards?

MT: I started playing the church organ during my Bach studies. With time I have developed a certain keyboard technique that I apply to the organ. The fact that I am not a church organist gives me an atypical attitude. The organ allows me to improvise polyphonically, which in jazz happens quite seldom, because I don't have to respect a certain rhythmical pattern.

AAJ: What is your opinion about the contemporary jazz or the so-called New Music?

MT: I have realized that we have to talk more seriously about music, because the appetite and intuition that come from our natural musicality are gradually diminishing. I am not saying that music will disappear, but it will remain in some well-protected zones while repetitive music, sampling and other electronic devices, which have nothing in common with the musical art, will take its place. These are things that are connected to technology and which -by not being done by musicians but rather by those who sell music -have led to certain standardization. The result is the limitation of the rhythm to metrics, the disparity of the melody, the use of a single harmony and in the end, of a suggestion of harmony. These were practically all backward steps to the zones of primitive music without musical tradition and a serious cultural background. Music has some very clear dimensions, which will be slowly disappearing if we don't cultivate them. You can be atonal for a while, but this is a dangerous thing, because after a while you end up in a cosmos, without any reference system. The whole thing is gravitational.

AAJ: You have published a book in which, among other things, you draw a parallel between jazz and the chess game. Would you like to develop on that?

MT: This is a book I am very fond of. Its title is The Referential Sound and the Arch of Occidental Music. The analogy with the game of chess occurred to me during the morning shower. That's when I get the most of my good ideas (laughs). It goes like this: The King is the referential sound, the Queen is the melody, because she can move in all directions, the Rooks are the harmonies, (harmonies are called Towers, by the way), the Bishops are the scales and the knight who moves in L is the motive, the pattern. As for the Pawns, I was wondering for a while what to do with them until I realized that they are the sounds themselves. In the moment when you emit a sound you sent the pawns ahead, and they cannot return.

AAJ: You said that you started improvising very early. Did your study of Bach influence in any way your art of improvisation?

MT: Absolutely. Not as a structural or as a compositional modality, but Bach has influenced what I call the purity of the musical gesture. There is a kind of profoundness there, a kind of letting the music do its own thing. That's the secret. Of course we don't know it and we cannot apply the Bach method, but we can intuit it. It means letting the music flow naturally. It is so natural that you cannot change a single sound. Mozart and Bach are such well structured and natural composers, that if you change a single sound it would be like changing the nose of Mona Lisa. And that is the best proof that music results from the cosmic rapports we bear in ourselves. And it ensues from our moral position towards these rapports. Music is a natural force that has become very rare. I am aware that we cannot write anymore music of that complexity and that one cannot improvise along the Charlie Parker inspirational line, but we cannot stop making music, because it would be as if you told a child not to play.

AAJ: What heft has the conceptual factor in your compositions?

MT: It has a corrective function and when I am somehow confused, a normative one. But in the moment the music comes towards you, and all the premises are available, the conceptual aspect risks endangering the inspiration.

AAJ: What are you working on now? What are your future plans?

MT: My main project is to play with as many people as possible. I plan to get my book translated and published in an international language, maybe English, who knows. And I also aim to finally stage a musical I wrote some time ago after a play written by a great Romanian writer I. L. Caragiale, The Lost Letter.
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