Jazz interview with jazz clarinetist Kinan Azmeh. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Kinan Azmeh: – I was born in Damascus Syria to a family that enjoys listening to music. When my sister and I were little, my dad used to make us sit and listen to the great works of the classical composers while pretending to be a conductor. There was always music in the house a both my parents played music amateurly.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the clarinet? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the clarinet?
KA: – At age 5 I started on the violin but that did not go very well as
I am left handed. So placing the bow on the strings with my right hand felt impossible. My dad being a very curious man by nature wrote to the encyclopediaBritannica asking them for advice. They wrote back suggesting that
I should switch to an even handed instrument. The two instruments that fit that criteria back in Damascus were either clarinet or Piano, and I have always imagined being the traveling musicians so the piano was ruled out and I chose the clarinet. I Studied with incredible teachers: Shukry Shawki, Anatoly Moratof, Nickolay Viovanof and CharlesNeidich among others, and all have contributed to my development and to all of them I feel incredible e gratitude.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
KA: – Sound is an eternal search for most musicians. And I have been searching for my own since
I began playing. What I like about the clarinet is that it can play several characters and can be flexible in a verity of musical vocabulary. I like the sound I have now and I feel it expresses me best. But i continue to search for ways to keep it honest and true to what I am trying to say.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
KA: – I don’t have any really, I always play, sometimes when I work on a new piece I try to isolate passages and make them into mini etudes. Sometimes when I am composing, few suggestions that I am writing end up in my warm-up routines. You might find it surprising when I tell you that `I consider time away form the clarinet (composing, listening to music, running, reading) as important top the development of the musician as practicing an instrument.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?
KA: – Hard to say, I try to enjoy the difference of a verity of music schools. I go sometimes in phases where one school attracts me more than others, which usually leads to lots of research and studying.
JBN.S: – Which are the best jazz albums for you of 2017 year?
KA: – I am not a big fan of “best, fastest, most beautiful, etc” as I don’t like to isolate the collective. But currently I am enjoying listening to few albums by German Saxophonist Timo Volbrecht, Palestinian clarinetist Mohammed Najm, and Lebanese Pianist Tarek Yamani
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
KA: – I think had we been able to answer that question, then there would be no more need for music. I truly believe that music allows us to explore emotions that we don’t have the luxury of experiencing in real life. And personally do believe the intellect and soul are the same things under different titles. For example: I think that the best compositions are the ones that have a soul that floats as if they were improvised, and some of the best improvisations are the ones that sound structured as if they were composed.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
KA: – I think some of the most memorable experiences for me being on stage where times where i
felt incredibly grounded, powerful and feeling a connection with an audience. One of the most memorable was a concert I did with members of my trio Hewar in a small backyard in Damascus in 2000, which was a full concert based on three musical phrases. For me that was the first time thatI improvised a full concert and remember how addictive that felt!!
JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?
KA: – Obsessing about the business side of music can kill any creative soul. My only tip is that you have to stay honest and keep true to what you believe in. this might take much longer but it will give a lifetime of contentment . It is also good to remember that there are no shortcuts for being a successful artist. It is one of the rare cases where being stubborn is a good thing !!
JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?
KA: – I am not sure I can answer this question, as I don’t consider myself to be a jazz man, I play music and I do think that music is a continuum. I am classically trained, I love improvising, and I am trying to spread both horizontally and vertically in a verity of musical genres. Whether music can be business or not depends on how we are defining business. But seeing the lack of morality in most of the business of the world today then maybe it is a good thing that music is not business.
JBN.S: – Which collaboration have been the most important experiences for you?
KA: – Each collaboration has its flavor and excitement. I am a collaborator by default. Some collavorations end up taking a life on their own such as my bands the Kinan Azmeh Cityband and my band Hewar. But I have truly enjoyed collaborating with legends across a vast verity of genres such as Yo-Yo Ma, John McLaughlin, Djivan Gasparian and Daniel Barenboim.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
KA: – I am an optimist by nature, I do believe that Jazz is very much alive judging form the average age of audience members in Jazz concerts. I remember fondly the last time I played at the Damascus `jazz Festival in 2010 where the average age for the audience was around 25. But in principal I think there should me more room on our mass communications tools (Radio, TV etc) for serious music making in its all genres.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
KA: – There are two main ways of looking at arts, one says that you do art to reflect on the world around you, and the other one suggests that the role of the artist is to recreate the world in the most ideal way. My personal philosophy has always been that we do art to experience emotions that we don’t have the luxury of experiencing in real life, to try to explore the subtle nuances that enriches the human experience. I don’t think one can individually understand the spirit and meaning of life. But one can be exposed to the beautify that life provides. And for me, music has been the way I am exploring the beauties of life, and I try to contribute to that as much as `I can by creating new music and adding that to the collective.
JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?
KA: – I don’t have expectations, I have wishes, and when it comes to wishes there is the general, the professional and the personal. I wish that Syria manages to get up form its current tragedy and that a free-democratic-secular Syria would happen. On the professional level I hope that I will be able to continue to create for a long time and that I keep developing my tools, on the personal side I continue to be thankful for what life has brought me so far. Feeling powerless is what brings me fear and anxiety…and that’s where holding a musical instrument is incredibly helpful!
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
KA: – That people would stop dividing musical genres in different categories. And that playing a musical instrument becomes the norm and not the exception.
JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?
KA: – I am writing a clarinet concerto to be premiered with the Seattle Symphony in January. But also I continue to tour with my “suite for improviser and orchestra” in which I am trying to bring back improvisations to classical music stages and to close that gap between the different audiences.
JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?
KA: – As I sad before, I don’t think there are any differences at all, it is just about the use of different vocabularies. For me to do art you need three things: you need top have something to say (an idea you want to express), you need to have a tool to say that (in my case it is the clarinet), and you need to have the skills to use the tool to say what you want to say. When you look at music like that, you realizer that the vocabulary itself is not important, but how you use and why you use it is by far more important.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
KA: – Besides the three artists I mentioned earlier, I am big fan of Dawn of Midi. As a touring artist I find myself always surrounded by new albums by friends or by new friends I meet at music festivals. This is always incredibly exciting and full of surprises.
JBN.S: – What’s your current setup?
KA: – I play a Selmer Privilege clarinet, I use a Clark W Fobes mouthpiece and a Rovner ligature (I am a Slemer and Rovner artist).
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
KA: – Would love to have few drinks and do a jam session that would include: Mozart, Stravinsky, Coltrane, Benny Goodman, Erno Kallai-Kiss (Hungarian Gypsy Clarinetist) and Umm Koulthoum (Egyptian singer).
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself …
KA: – I think you left me witout questions to ask!!
JBN.S: – Thank you for answers.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan