Always on the road: İlhan Erşahin

Always on the road: İlhan Erşahin


Interview: Biçem Kaya

Illustration: Saydan Akşit

Various sounds from the hidden corners of the world map resonate across the sounds İlhan Erşahin creates with musician friends that he finds himself in, and invite the listeners to a journey. As a matter of fact, they bring the listener to outer space. Our chat with Erşahin took off from the notion of being “on the road” - which marks a beginning for his story - and reached out to future plans.

Erşahin’s essential project İstanbul Sessions featuring Arto Tunçboyacıyan will be at Zorlu PSM Turkcell Stage on October 7 as part of 31st Akbank Jazz Festival. 

Your passion for music took you from Stockholm to New York many years ago. You’ve mentioned that Jack Kerouac’s Beat generation pioneer On the Road plays an important role in this. Considering you spend most of your time on tour, what does being on the road mean to you? How do you feel when you think about this novel again? 

I love Kerouac, all his quotes are brilliant. That time in the ‘50’s seems to have been such a special time in the US, also in many places. Yes, my life is a bit like that book actually. I am trying hard to be open and live day by day and take life as it comes. The beat generation was about being in the moment and living day by day, and most important of all, being open and being creative. The reason I moved to NYC was also strangely enough due to the film The Warriors as well as Peter Tosh and the Rolling Stones. I was just in love with them both, and somehow in my mind they were all New Yorkers, which in a way they were I guess. At least, they recorded and spent time there.

You believe Taqsim and makams are in harmony with jazz. Also, while drawing attention to the contradiction in exactly repeating a performance, you frequently highlight the importance of being in the moment. These two dominant approaches in your musical view in a way separates the unique relationship between the work and its performer in the Eastern cultures from the West’s systematic recording methodology. As a musician who has found his own voice, what kind of an impact did the intimacy between jazz and Eastern musical traditions have on you? 

I think in the end it is all about sound. About finding your sound whatever scales or harmony you use. Look at Coltrane or Miles or Wayne Shorter, etc. All you need is to hear 1 note and you know it’s them. Of course it is interesting to mix cultures, scales, moods etc. It brings new things to life. Like I always mix blues scales with some eastern flavored scales because that is me.

We are in a period where we don’t get together as much as the old days. As the notion of concert has changed, we have also been observing different approaches in the composing and recording processes. Considering you have also recorded albums during the pandemic, what kind of changes do you observe in your habits?

I don’t know if things changed for me, but for sure I have done - as I hope everyone has done - lots of thinking, and that translates I guess into change. I feel I plan a bit calmer now, a bit more thoughtful. I have learned a lot playing with DJs because their thing is usually a 2-4 set and building a thing. Jazz and live music is mostly about going up to highs, then down, then up again, then down again, not all improvised music of course, but seems most.

You have recently shared “Pire” and “Mesta” singles with Oceanvs Orientalis. First time we heard you playing together was in 2017, at Cappadox. How did your partnership with Oceanvs Orientalis begin? Is a new album on the road?

Yes, those two singles are a part of our album. It is on the way. These are just the 2 first singles from the up and coming album. My partnership with Safak really happened as most of my adventures: naturally. We met and became great friends, then music happened. I love Safak. I believe it’s interesting to work with minds that come from different areas of music. I love it.

 In what ways do you find sharing a stage with Arto Tunçboyacıyan exciting? Can you please share when was the first time you came across his music? 

I met Arto a long time ago. I think I met him around the time I made the first Wax Poetic album in 1998. We have played on and off since those times. I always say Arto is not a musician; he is a magician.

New York has a special dynamic when it comes to music venues. Flashing DIY stages that present various experiences to the listener also has been creating a one-of-a-kind liveliness and motion. Nublu has been existing with its own style in the New York scene for 19 years. What do you think about Nublu’s changing context and position in the scene? 

I have to say there is no place like Nublu, and I really wish there were many more places like Nublu in the world. We all deserve places that feel like home, where art is real, and music is now. I still love going to Nublu every single night while I am in NYC. There are always great bands / musicians and DJs there. Of course I am booking it, so I keep the level high and interesting. Nublu is my concept, my booking, my curation, etc. but it is everyone’s at the same time. It is like a communist run art dictatorship!

Last year you released an album with Nublu Orchestra conducted by Butch Morris that document the concert experiences of the legendary leader Lawrence Butch Morris. I believe this is a very important archival work that honours his memory and introduces him to new audiences. It must have been an emotional process for you as well. Are you planning other works for the series? 

Yes, we have 6 or 7 more live albums we will put out this coming year, and I really hope we can one day press those as LPs. That is my dream, but it is costly. Butch Morris was my best friend and I love him so much. He always reminded me of İlhan Koman, from whom I got my name. He was my father’s best friend. I loved him dearly as well.

With İstanbul Sessions, you have discovered sounds from various parts of İstanbul, narrated stories from space under the Solar Plexus album, mentioned Hittites through last year’s Bir Zamanlar Şimdi. Is a new album on the way? What are your plans? 

Of course we are here to stay and to explore. We will definitely record new material very soon, actually hopefully this fall; to come out by 2022.

In your previous interviews you mention that during the pandemic you spent more time listening to the recordings in your archive. What kind of discoveries did you make during this period? Is there any stuff that was overlooked and recently discovered?

Yes, many things… I have a very exciting album coming out with a new trio. My friend and great amazing drummer Kenny Wollesen and fantastic guitarist and producer Dave Harrington, from the band Darkside, the band he has with Nicolás Jaar. This album is done and will come out shortly. I am also right now finishing up an album with my Brazilian band, Praia Futuro. Our first album was instrumental and now our second release is more vocal-based. I have also started a new Wax Poetic album which is very exciting. Then a new Wonderland album with Hüsnü [Şenlendirici] is in my thoughts as well as like I mentioned earlier a new album with Istanbul Sessions, which has become my main live band.

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