From classical to jazz, with a dash of the traditional to spice things up

Skilful pianist and composer Fazil Say confirms that Turkey has a tradition in classical music. The 38-year-old Turkish artist will perform tonight at the Herod Atticus Theater and tomorrow at the Benaki Museum’s Pireos Street Annex. Say is a cross-over musician – starting from Turkey, he moved to the European classical music tradition but is also very much involved in American jazz music. Turkey has a history with Western music. In a telephone interview with Kathimerini, Say explained how prominent German composers were invited to Turkey in the early 20th century to help the new state, founded by Kemal Ataturk, develop its own system of European musical education. One of the results of such initiatives was that the country acquired its first national opera and ballet stages as far back as the 1940s and 50s, heralding a new era for concerts and opera productions in Turkey. As early as the pre-WWII period, Turkey had produced five composers who had studied in Europe and were experimenting with new sounds, pop and jazz. «I believe I bring my own culture to music,» he said. «Turkish music is in my blood.» His compositions prove that: They may have a symphonic character, but they are infused with Turkish musical elements. Among other works, Say has also set to music to lyrics by the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. «I expect composers, whether they be from India or the Netherlands, to incorporate elements from their own traditions into their music. That is why my favorite classical composers are Bela Bartok and Igor Stravinsky. They both studied their country’s musical tradition in depth and filtered it into their work.» «We need different cultures. We live in a time when a non-European musician, for instance, someone from Japan or China, has a lot to offer to so-called classical music, not only regarding skill but also form. That was not the case 50 years ago, it didn’t exist.» Say was surprised when asked if his work is well-known in his homeland or whether a contemporary «classical» composer is hardly noticed, as is the case in Greece. «Why do you say that? Isn’t the music of Theodorakis or Xydakis well-known?» It might be, but even in the case of Theodorakis, it is his songs that are mostly known, not his symphonic works. «That happens everywhere, especially in Mediterranean countries. These countries have a tradition in melody, vocals and lyrics, which is very different to the traditions of Central and Northern Europe. I have written avant-garde music but right now I do what I really love: I try to find myself by combining Western music with traditional Turkish sounds. This is my personal approach, which I also maintain when playing jazz. I have loved jazz since I was a child and I like enriching it with Turkish improvisational sounds.» Classical tweaked with jazz is what Say will be doing at the Benaki tomorrow. Along with percussionist Burhan Ocal, he will treat works by Mozart and Haydn in his own improvised style. That will be a different show from tonight’s, where he will join the Thessaloniki State Orchestra, conducted by Myron Michailidis, for a program of works by Gershwin and Berlioz. «I am excited,» he said, «this will be my first time in Athens. And that is important, because my mother is of Greek descent, she comes from Crete.» Born in Ankara in 1970, Say’s talent became apparent early on and, at the age of 17, he went to Germany to study piano and composition. In 1994, he won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions. He is the regular guest of many renowned orchestras worldwide, such as the New York Philharmonic and the Israel Philharmonic. He has performed in numerous festivals, concert halls and tours around the world. His love for jazz and improvisation led to the foundation of a quartet combining jazz and ethnic music with ney flute player Kudsi Erguner. The quartet has participated in many jazz festivals, including the Montreux Jazz Festival, where they also performed with Bobby McFerrin.