“To evolve in the moment”: Deniz Özçelik and Enver Muhamedi Duo

“To evolve in the moment”: Deniz Özçelik and Enver Muhamedi Duo


Deniz Özçelik and Enver Muhammedi, long-time production partners, were be on the Akbank Sanat YouTube channel on January 28th with their duo performance. Before their live performance, we had a conversation on the past year and the jazz atmosphere in the country. 

Interview: Biçem Kaya

Translated: Cansu Çubukçu

Illustration: Saydan Akşit

Deniz Özçelik & Enver Muhamedi Duo was performing on Akbank Sanat YouTube channel on January 28th. How does it feel to have your audience follow your performance on-screen, and how does it influence the music?

D.Ö: I've performed live from home for a number of foreign platforms and had multiple performances that were broadcasted live. At first, I felt as if I was playing and singing by myself, but as I continued playing this way, I began to feel the audience's presence.

I guess we all got used to this process. We had to. It forced us to establish emotional bonds with the screens, which I think was very advantageous in the sense that it completely removed the regional and physical limitations of doing collaborative projects and works, and building in-depth communications. I started to communicate much more with my friends from overseas. Although this circumstance's temporariness has been a motivating factor,  I think online concerts and sharing will proceed at the same speed even when the pandemic ends, and its relaxation-reaction process is over.

On the other hand... I guess I don't want to talk about its disadvantages as much. But we have to, sooner or later. Using concerts and music events as a means of virtually connecting and sharing is essential for the music industry to heal its wounds.

As for the duo project, Enver and I have been collaborating for a long time now; I think we have a style that grounds on improvisation and evolves at the moment of its making. We are planning to present our collaborative works to the audience very soon.

The pandemic period brought along some awareness and questioning. How did 2020 affect you personally and musically? What kind of awareness did it create? 

D.Ö: Time is music's most fundamental variable, so my relationship with time directly impacted my music. I realized once again the depth and detail I put into my production when I’m surrounded with less action. It’s been great to be somewhat away from being exposed to the ferroconcrete noise while trying to get from one place to another in Istanbul. I also concentrated on exercise and yoga. I had missed listening to and playing music all day long, and I had the opportunity to do those as well.

The pandemic has allowed me to spare more time for dancing and acting, which I love. I'm sure they will reflect on my projects pretty soon, and I'm excited about it. Even though it’s more pleasant to talk about the positive aspects, I have a desperate longing for the stage. I missed being together with my musician friends and the audience so much.

Unfortunately, the underrepresentation of the arts’ and music’s material and nonmaterial value gained more clarity during these times. The aid that's been provided is not enough. Many of my musician friends quit music to do other things for a living. There are a lot of people who are selling their instruments. Even if we see a street musician, we shouldn't avoid helping. The popularisation of open-air concerts, festivals, and the crowd-funding art websites such as Patreon; as well as the increase in concert opportunities that provides us a stage and a breath of fresh air, like Akbank House Jazz State series, will be wonderful for both the listeners and us musicians.

You are a versatile and experimental musician who likes to combine jazz with different genres. In what ways do you think jazz is evolving in today's world, where boundaries are getting more ambiguous, concepts more intertwined, and categories kind of torn down?  

D.Ö: Jazz music has departed from where it had started a very long time ago, and evolved as it spread to the whole world. I think there isn’t any distinctive element left in its definition besides that it consists of improvisation. We can say that it used to have at least a certain pattern and specific limits, but things changed after the Post Bop era. Various kinds of music that include improvisation is being categorized as jazz.

I think jazz music started to compete with classical music in terms of development when jazz began branching out from New Orleans and big bands started to form. After a while, jazz took over from Debussy and became the pioneering music genre to unify people and capture change. The current situation is quite different; musical styles are increasing logarithmically, as does the number of music being produced, so the range has widened, and the scope of jazz has shrunk in this range. Miles Davis has a saying that describes the changes in music: “when you hear an accident today it sounds different, not all the metal colliding like it was in the forties and fifties.” If we speak of today, I can say that the notion of jazz is changing by expansively adapting to this era.

You mentioned in one of your interviews that you have different characters. You have a character named Yelda, meaning the longest night, and she is the main character of your first solo album. What can you share with us about your new album and Yelda?

D.Ö: This is a method that composers and performance artists frequently use; creating a persona on stage and in fantasy. Many musicians do this from the very beginning by directly attaching a pseudonym to the persona who makes their music, like Daft Punk, Sun Ra, while some appear during a performance or a production phase.

Esperanza Spalding explains this very well in one of her performances; her character Emily is exempt from all the personal traits she has, should have, and anticipated to have.

This way, you release the fear that prevents creativity, the mind frees from its burdens, and the music flows. Becca Stevens’ Regina, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, Prince’s Camille…

There aren’t any limitations of genre and style in my composition, so I live with a voice and music that can shapeshift and travel from state to state. When I find myself jamming with more than one style, I group them and name them. Right now, Yelda’s group accommodates my favourite songs. And this is a character who makes fun of my darkest emotions while still being deeply devoted to them. When you hear the music, these statements will make much more sense, of course. I can’t wait to share it!

Aside from other bands, you arrange and produce your own music as well. This type of practice grants more liberty to the artist, could you give more details about this aspect? Do you have future plans revolving around establishing your own production company? 

D.Ö: If I’m alone, yes, but my room is always very crowded. Because for me, the music I listen to is welcoming to the people who play them. After embracing, absorbing, and internalizing their music, I stroll through their universe and, thus, meet a lot of people and feel like my perspective is broadened. Or I’ve gone crazy, I don’t know!

I can say that I’ve concentrated on producing inside my own world. The more I realize how much I miss getting together with people to sing and play, having eye contact with the audience; I pass on that suppressed energy into my imagination. A lot of movement is involved in my working practice. I sing and dance alongside my basic routines. I live with dance, sports and yoga. Sometimes, activities that cultivate flow by flexing the mind's molds, like the Abramovich method, keep me and the music alive and help maintain my enthusiasm and motivation. Also, we witness the extent of sharing we can enable without having any form of a physical connection. Perhaps we see and understand a lot of things we haven’t been seeing and understanding before. From these awakenings alone, you can pull out many materials to work on and harvest. My solid plan is to present the pieces I’ve composed in their most organic and raw states, without having any moral or material concerns. There are plenty of other things too of course, but I can’t say much about them as they shape according to the circumstances we’re going through.

We’re in an era where social media and online platforms accelerated accessibility. 

Do you think this acceleration brings alongside more freedom in music, and flexibility in boundaries?

D.Ö: It simultaneously adds and removes that flexibility. More music on the internet means more options and less focus dedicated to each one. It becomes difficult to pick one or more from the bunch and go into more depth. Although this seems like the listeners’ concern, people who produce music are essentially the people who consume it the most. Unless the musician can get to that depth, their production will be doomed to come out as something that needs to reflect the expression of short-term attention, rather than music that could be calmly and thoroughly analysed.

Other than that; independent, free and organic music finds an audience more easily thanks to the simplicity of listening and sharing.  This is great news in terms of the quality of music. Nevertheless, we shouldn't overlook the lack of income provided to the musicians in these platforms.

Could you share some clues and insights to the Deniz Özçelik & Enver Muhamedi Duo performance on January 28th?

E. M: We’ve been doing music with Deniz for a long time, in different formats. Trios, duos and bigger ensembles. We love improvisation and support each other because our musical tastes match, and we prepare a musical basis for our projects as well. Our performances end up like interactive improvisations, I think this is the most exciting part for the audience, because they don’t listen to something they’re familiar with. This time, there will be a little twist. Stay tuned for Deniz’s surprise arrangements. We hope you enjoy it.

Can you briefly tell the story of how you met with bass and how you fell in love with it?  

E. M: I’ve studied classical guitar for 7 years in Tefta Tashko music school. I also play contrabass alongside electrical bass, but the full transition happened in high school, when I switched to the contrabass department. There are two reasons. One, I was paying most of my attention to the contrabass while listening to music, and the music I liked and transcribed was more bass-intensive. Two, there were scarcely any musicians who played contrabass in Kosovo. This is an important point for me. I involuntarily took the responsibility of setting an example and being a source of motivation for the contrabass players there, and it makes me happy.

Finally, you have published Letter K, the solo album which you have dedicated to Kosovo. First albums tend to be special for artists. What are your reflections and how was the general response to the album? Have you shared any of the experience with Deniz Özçelik, as she is also working on her solo? 

E. M: Unfortunately my first album Letter K didn’t come with a great timing. We had to cancel the planned tour and many of the launch activities due to the pandemic. Despite that, I have received very positive feedback both from Turkey and abroad. The positive response motivated me to start working on some new stuff. Of course, I still want to organise a launch concert for Letter K as soon as it’s possible. Many great musicians have participated in the album and it’s our mutual wish to perform. 

As an exciting jazz musician, you also have a strong connection with rock music. Do these two resonate in any way?  

E. M: In recent years, and especially during the pandemic, I’ve added new paths and depth to my music. Things like composing, producing and the soundtrack experience made me approach my main field, Contrabass/Electronic Bass, from different perspectives. Apart from that due to my appreciation towards the performance and the composition, rock has always been an area of interest. Although rock and jazz might have different sounds and tunes, I see them as two styles that can feed each other with different attitudes – at least that’s how it works for me.

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