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Timucin Sahin: Fretless and Fearless

Matthew Warnock By

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Exciting, creative, challenging, noise, nonsense, genius—all of these words and more have been used for decades by critics and listeners alike to describe the avant-garde movement in jazz. While there seems to be no consensus on the genres appeal, some love it and others detest it, the avant-garde has always had a unique ability to draw out emotions in people, regardless of their listening preferences. The music is technically and musically challenging to the performers and to the listeners as well, who are often not accustomed to the abstract nature of the art. Like any art form that begs the audience to change the way they think about a particular genre, in this case music, experimental jazz is often trend setting and divisive at the same time.

Turkish-born/New York-based guitarist Timuçin Şahin is one of those artists who defines the avant-garde genre. He'll admit that his music is not for everyone, it is not for the casual listener, but it's the music that he hears and the music that he loves. At first one might shy away from the often abrasive and harmonically abstract nature of Şahin's music, but that would only be a disservice to the listener as well as to the artist. Once the initial jolt has subsided, and the dissonant melodies have settled in one's ears, the music takes on a rhythmic quality that acts as the glue holding everything together. This is not dance music per se, but there is a pulse that underlines Şahin's work, that binds the freely improvised and the structured, producing layers of interest in his pieces that go beyond simply being abstract for the sake of shock value.

As Şahin says, making a living on the New York avant-garde scene is tough on a good day, but here's an artist who is looking beyond the financial aspect of the music. This is art for the sake of art, music that is written from the heart, and that connects the artist and the audience through a web of emotion, rhythm and self- expression.

All About Jazz: You were born and raised in Turkey, which has a strong folk-music tradition as well as a very distinct musical heritage. I was wondering if you could comment on the influence that Turkish music has or hasn't had on your playing, what are your thoughts on that music?

Timuçin Şahin: Turkish music didn't have an influence on my playing when I was living there, oddly enough. I lived there until '92 when I moved to the Netherlands and I had started playing rock guitar about three or four years before I emigrated. At the time I wasn't aware of Turkish music, but I was introduced to it after I left the country. I spent some time in the late '90s reconnecting with that music, so its influence on me dates to that period of my life, and funnily enough, not to when I was actually living in Turkey.

AAJ: Even though you play jazz, which is an innovative and original style of music on its own, you're still able to stand out among the crowd with your unique and individual approach to the genre. How important is it to you that you find your own voice and distinct approach to jazz and to jazz guitar?

TS: Honestly I don't really have a choice. This is how I play, this is what I play, and I don't really have a choice. I love playing standards, they're a big part of what makes jazz a great music, but in my case I prefer to explore new sounds and to write new music. We're a product of what we like, who we are and what we study. Especially with my instrument choice and the music that I like and that I compose, my music is not for everybody. But, for me it's very important to have my own voice. In any style of music, jazz, rock, classical or whatever, it's the uniqueness that describes one's identity, so I'm happy to have that distinct character in my playing.

AAJ: New York, where you live, always seems to be on the cutting edge as far as new sounds in jazz are concerned. As a guitarist who's on the avant-garde scene in New York, can you comment on the health of the scene right now?

TS: It's very difficult right now. You should really think twice about moving to New York these days. When I used to visit New York, before I moved here, I loved it. It was like heaven to me. But, after moving here four years ago I realized how difficult it is to make a living here. If I wasn't getting out on the road I'd have to have a day job to make ends meet.

The level of the musicians in New York is amazing, it's at a real high point in history, but the amount of work to go around is minimal right now, at least compared to other years. I hope that difficult periods like this, where things are a bit slow compared to previous years, won't affect the overall health of the scene. It's a great place to live, great musicians, but it's very tough to make a living only playing avant-garde jazz here, or anywhere for that matter.

AAJ: Even though it's tough to make things work as an avant-garde musician, do you feel that jazz needs people like you, and others, to help push the music forward? To innovate and challenge the listener to take new chances and to prevent jazz from becoming a dated music.

TS: I think any kind of art form, especially an improvised art form like jazz which evolves throughout the years, should maintain its forward moving mentality. If it stops, if composers and performers stop looking for new influences, new directions and new sounds, which might signal the end of the art form. Guys like Ben Monder for example, are really pushing the music forward, which is great for the genre.

When I first visited New York things were a bit more traditional, but I think today's younger generation of jazz musicians is more open to new music, especially modern classical and world music. Even though there are a lot of people who like the traditional aspects of jazz, I think that there are enough people out there who really enjoy the newness of the music, the challenge of listening to innovative composers and performers that the music will keep moving forward into new and exciting territory.

AAJ: Even though your music is harmonically and melodically "out," there is always a strong rhythmic component to it that helps tie everything together. How important is rhythm to you as an avant-garde composer and performer?

TS: I think it's the most important thing. Everything I play and everything I write has some sort of rhythmic thought behind it. I've always been attracted to composers that use rhythm as a strong function of their writing, whether it's jazz, or classical, or any genre. Even though we are experimenting with the harmony and melody, my music seems to always have a pulse, or implied pulse, to it. When I'm writing, I think about rhythm as being just as important as my choice of instruments, form or timber. They're all related, but rhythm seems to stand out to me for some reason as being an important aspect in my compositional approach.

AAJ: You also play a rather unique instrument, the seven-string fretless guitar. How did you first become interested in that instrument and decide to use it in your performances?

TS: I started playing it back in '99, when I was studying chromatic music such as ragas. I was playing with an Indian violin player and the embellishments, ornaments and emotional context of the music we were playing inspired me to take the frets off of my guitar, off my regular six string. After a while it became a big part of my playing, so I had the double-neck six, fretted, and seven string fretless guitar made, which has now become my main instrument.

I was commissioned to write a piece for cello a few years back and I really fell in love with the sound and timbre of that instrument. After finishing the piece I decided to experiment with different tunings on the guitar, and now I have it set up as basically a cello with extra strings. Not only does that give me extra harmonic choices, different sound structures, but it enables me to express the emotional content of my music in a different way.

The instrument is very personal to me and I can't replace it, which is also a bit of a challenge because it's so unique I can't really replace it. It's a bit of a challenge to play, because of feedback that occurs sometimes and having to switch between each neck, but I really love playing it. To me, it's the instrument that allows me to properly express the sounds that I hear in my head in a performance situation.

Selected Discography

Timuçin Şahin, Bafa (Between the Lines, 2009)

Timuçin Şahin Trio, Window for My Breath (Kalan Muzik, 2005)

Timuçin Şahin, Slick Road (Self Produced, 2003)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Sahin Kocan

Page 2: Cem Turer


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