Akbank Jazz Festival, piano,
Perfect Balance and more: Kerem Görsev

Akbank Jazz Festival, piano, Perfect Balance and more: Kerem Görsev


Since releasing his debut album Hands & Lips in the 1990’s, master pianist and composer Kerem Görsev has become one of the best-known names in jazz in Turkey with his many albums, collaborations, and broadcast programs. Starting from the early days of his brimming music career, Görsev has also been one of the Akbank Jazz Festival’s most beloved guests. As the festival celebrates its 30th year, we asked Görsev our questions about his most memorable festival experiences, being a part of the special recording prepared in honor of this year’s celebration, and about the development of jazz in Turkey.

Interview: Leyla Aksu
Illustration: Saydan Akşit

You’ve been with your instrument since the age of six. How has your relationship with the piano evolved since then? What do you feel when you sit down in front of your piano?

These 88 black-and-white keys are always a kind of magic. That’s because my first ever toy was an upright piano that my late father had bought me. And ever since then, my friendship with this toy continues. Of course, there has been grand pianos, sometimes other upright pianos since then… But when you sit in front of the piano and handle it nicely, it brings you happiness every time. If you don’t treat the piano poorly, the piano will never treat you poorly. This is a very important matter. Yes, the piano is exactly like a wild horse; if it senses that you’re inexperienced, it won’t yield to you. Of course, my novice years are long gone now. When I sit down, I can subdue it more now; I try to create the things I want. But I still can’t do exactly what I want. No one could. And I won’t be able to either.

You’ve performed at the Akbank Jazz Festival under many different headings until now. What has been your most memorable festival performance so far, and why?

Let me tell you; I remember it like it was yesterday. It was either 1995 or 1996, at Akbank Jazz. My new album had just been released, and we were playing with Eric Revis. So for two days in a row - since the first day’s tickets were sold out long before, so they added another day - at the Art and Sculpture Museum, we played with the American Brandford Marsalis - of course, he’s become a world-famous contrabass player now - on stage. We were friends then. I was very happy. My album had just come out too, and we played as a duo. Since then I’ve played as a part of many different projects. Each and every one of them carries a separate feeling and sentiment for me. But as this was the first concert I played at Akbank, I will never forget it. I was so happy; it was such a joyous concert.

As the festival celebrates its 30th year, it’s also been 26 years since your first release Hands & Lips. What are some of the changes you’ve observed and that have excited you in terms of Turkish jazz throughout this time?

I mean, while there aren’t that many from the new generation who believe in this music and who are jazz musicians, there are still great musicians who have faith in what they do. Out of Turkey’s entire population, which is 80 million, there are about 20-30 individuals, who play traditional jazz. But not just traditional, I’m actually talking about acoustic jazz, meaning unplugged. There are also some among them who play their own music, and I’m one of them. So our lane is made up of mainstream sounds, but I always play my own compositions. And now there are these individuals, these young musicians, that are in this lane as well. There really are developments that we can be proud of in Turkey.

Now there’s also a special record being made to celebrate the festival’s 30th year, and you are a part of this project as well. What was it like to be involved in this album? And can we get some clues as to the track that will be featured on it?

The name of the track I play on the album is “Cash or Credit.” You know how in the States when you go and sit somewhere, and they’ll come and ask you if you’ll be paying by cash or by credit card? That’s where that comes from, the joke of it. So we came in, Volkan [Hürsever], myself, Ferit Odman, and we played in our trio conception. We made wood music again, like many of the groups there. We played the notes we loved, believed in, and felt it. It was a nice experience. I mean, there are youngsters, then there are the older youngsters, like us, and then there are also those who have been a part of Turkey’s jazz scene but haven’t introduced themselves to the world. For example, Aydın Esen is a part of this project, and these are very important things. And it’s also good because this has become a document for Turkish jazz history. We have a lack of documentation in Turkish jazz history. And now, there are about 30 groups, 90-100 musicians, and they all came together thanks to Akbank. It was good.

Throughout your career, you’ve participated in many different projects and programs in order to help spread the word about jazz in Turkey. What comes to mind when you see all of these artists involved in this project altogether?

You know what comes to my mind? See now; let me just briefly tell you something, and you see what you make of it. There’s this photograph taken in Harlem, a jazz photograph. Do you know it?

Yes, of course.

Well, let’s call this a form of that but in Turkey, made belatedly. Because, for example, people would have wanted Erol Pekcan to be on there, for Elvan Aracı to be on there, for the jazz musicians who are no longer with us to be on there, Nükhet Ruacan or Nükhet Aruca... There were many great musicians who weren’t among us. If this photograph, this project had been done a little earlier, say fifteen or twenty years ago, it would be different. We would have been younger, and most of the musicians who were with us this time around wouldn’t have been there. Well, but this is what time is like, you never know what’s going to happen. But it’s a good thing. What’s been produced by these 30 groups of musicians truly is a document.

On Perfect Balance, your last album that came out in 2019, you were joined by Ferit Odman and Kağan Yıldız, whom you’ve been playing with for a while now, and also Ernie Watts is on saxophone. How did your paths first cross with Watts, how did you get together, and what did he bring to the recordings?

I mean, as you know, Ernie Watts has been in more than 1.700 records across the world, he’s played with the Rolling Stones for ten years, with Quartet West for the last thirteen years, and with Alan Broadbent... We made our first recording with Ernie back in 2010. It was for our Therapy album that we did with the London Philharmonia Orchestra. You know, Alan Broadbent, Ernie Watts, Ferit, and I all went to London, to the Abbey Road Studios for the Therapy album. After that, we toured, gave concerts, and then with Ernie we did Emirgan,  Four Days and Perfect Balance albums. So that means over 10 years, we made four albums, gave tens of concerts, both overseas and in Turkey. He’s a legend. When we play with him, well, when I play with anybody, I try to pick things up. See, for example, there’s this fifteen, sixteen year-old kid in Turkey named Hakan Başar. Now we really need to look out for him. At the moment, there is no other young talent like this in Turkey, and he already plays the way he does at this age. We really need to support him in Turkey, in every respect. Look at where we just ended up now. Here’s a kid, a bright young face of Turkey, and he plays very well too, he is going to improve greatly. I mean, the world might hear his name too; he might be able to do things that no one has been able to.

In a previous interview, an interview from 2010 if I’m not mistaken, you defined jazz as “the story of lived experience,” as the “art of telling stories.”

Exactly, yes, jazz is the story of long-lived experiences.

Well, with everything we’re experiencing in the world, what does jazz mean to you in this moment? Are you working on anything new, maybe bearing the traces of today?

I just wrote four or five new pieces now. So yes, I have, but I was really weaning. I mean, I’m just now gathering myself and have been writing for about two months. This last album of mine, Perfect Balance, came out in December and then the Corona virus just exploded. I was already in the country, we locked down, and just from watching the whole world, doing this and that, I hadn’t the spirit to play music. I really was weaning and am now just getting back to normal, but Corona virus numbers are also starting to increase. So, we’ll see what else is going to happen. It’s been a lesson, this strange thing. But I did write three or four new pieces, and once things settle down, I’ll go over to the States and do a recording. I’ve got good things in mind.

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