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Sibel Köse: “A growing synergy”

Blog
Sibel Köse: “A growing synergy”

20.11.2020

One of Turkey’s master jazz vocalists, Sibel Köse is among the leading names that have directed the course of jazz in Turkey through her unforgettable performances, encompassing vocal warmth, and the work she has done for jazz education since embarking on her career down the jazz path in the 1980’s. Throughout the years, she has taken her place on the Akbank Jazz stage with various projects and is also among the musicians that were selected to take part in the Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow recording, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the festival. Below, we asked Köse our questions about her quintet’s track on the album, her favorite memories from the festival, and her experiences as an educator.

Interview: Leyla Aksu
Illustration: Saydan Akşit 

Your introduction to jazz music, a chance meeting with an Ella Fitzgerald tape, is a story you’ve shared often. Do you remember what it felt like when you first heard that voice? And can you tell us a bit about your work with Tuna Ötenel when starting out as a vocalist?

I remember very well that I was greatly affected by it. Until that point, I was just listening to what would be considered popular music, singing in my own way. I thought I could sing different styles of songs rather easily; I was able to memorize new songs rather quickly and, to be honest, was quite boastful about it-must be what they call the courage of ignorance. I was really shaken awake when I first experienced Ella; what I was listening to was unbelievable. Ella’s vocal gymnastics, her extraordinary rhythmic transitions between vocal registers like an acrobat, her elation, her terrific technical mastery, the dynamics of the music itself… I was trying to understand what was going on and imitate it, but this long solo was impossible to mimic. It was unlike anything I had heard before; I enjoyed it tremendously. There were other songs on the album as well and they were beautiful too, but the “Airmail Special” solo excited me in a different kind of way, was calling me to places I didn't yet know. I think these were the things I was feeling. It’s been a very long time since then, but never mind any sort decline, my admiration still grows each day. Ella is a grand master.

I also experienced something similar when I first listened to Tuna Ötenel. He’s like a wondrous magician, our master, as if there is a musical waterfall in him. He’ll take you on a journey through time, to places you’ve yet to be. It’s as if the pieces in his repertoire, the ideas in his solos, his energy, his memory is never ending. The first time [we met], he had come to our rehearsal and invited me and dear Merve Erdal, who I was singing in the same group with, to come and sing a few songs at his concert at Middle East Technical University where we both students. I recall singing “Every Time We Say Goodbye.” I had the opportunity to and joy of singing with him for a long period of time. Every moment I breathed and sang in his music was an adventure, everything he said, a lesson; his council will always ring in my ears. Both me and those of my peers that had the chance to share the same stage with him, I’m not sure how aware of this we were, but Tuna Ötenel is of unique value, a genius, not just in Turkey but among jazz musicians across the world.

You are a member of the JAmZZ competition jury, taking place at this year’s Akbank Jazz Festival. Can you tell us a bit about this experience? What were you looking for in the young participants’ performances?

For a long time, through various education projects, I have frequently come together with those who have given their hearts to jazz music and want to sing, trying to share my knowledge and experience. I know the competition experience since I’ve lived through it myself, and I actually don’t like it very much. By it is very nature, I don’t fully agree with making comparisons in an arena like jazz, where individuality should be at the forefront. But still, these organizations are very encouraging for young talents, in terms of showing the bravery to break out of their shells and step out of their cocoons to display and share their unique energy; in this sense, it is very valuable. When I am a jury member, I try to evaluate using many different criteria concerning jazz singing; I look at various qualities such as tone, timbre, technique, ear, song choice, interpretation, rhythmic approach, phrasing, creativity, following form, being in tune with the orchestra, the performer’s capacity to steer the orchestra as a soloist, their give-and-take with the musicians and the audience, whether they are in the moment, their improvisations, and whether they are in command of the stage. Of course, these can surface in different ways for each entrant. And as such, it can become difficult to make a comparison sometimes. That’s when I look at it like this: Who do I want to keep listening to? Whose next song do I look forward to listening to with more curiosity and excitement? I think my assessments have been more in this vein in recent years. This year, something else also happened with JAmZZ that was surprising. I believe the beloved Elif Çağlar also agrees with me on this, for the first time, compared to previous competitions, male vocalists were both higher in number and they were better equipped. When it comes to jazz music and singing, the number of men is usually relatively lower. I think this is changing, and this is a pleasing situation. And I think there is also an increase in the number of women who are playing instruments. These are good; balance is a good thing.

You’re also a part of the Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow album, which brought many different artists together to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Akbank Jazz Festival. What does it mean to you for such a project to come to life and to be a part of it? What was the recording process like?

This extraordinary time we’re living in is challenging us, changing us, and transforming us all in different ways. Instead of holding the event itself, creating an album comprised of compositions by 30 different groups in order to celebrate the 30th year of the Akbank Jazz Festival, both eliminates the risk that could arise due to the pandemic and also leaves behind a more permanent work. Being included in this selection brings me joy, and I thank and celebrate everyone who contributed to it. I also hope to hear the work of our other valuable musician friends that weren’t able to be a part of this album on other similar projects in the years to come.

We were featured on the album as the Sibel Köse Quartet, which comprises of my dear fellow travellers who I have been making music with for a long time now: Engin Recepoğulları on saxophone, Kürşad Deniz on the piano, Kağan Yıldız on double bass, and Cem Aksel on the drums. The piece we performed was a ballad that Kağan Yıldız composed for American gospel singer Paul Robeson, who fought against discrimination his whole life. Kağan had sent and shared a recording of the piece with me a while back, but, frankly, due to our hectic concert schedules and travels, I hadn’t worked on it that much. Due to the circumstances during the Covid quarantine, I think we all turned to our work a bit more, questioned life again. During this time, as the whole world is sharing the same despair at the same time, I wrote the lyrics thinking that it would benefit me, just as much as everyone else, to imagine the days where we will leave these difficult times behind and come together once again with stronger ties than before. “We’ll Be As One”-I tried to reflect this hope with the words that I wrote around the theme of being one. Kağan, Kürşad, and I did the main recording at Hayyam Studios, Cem did his own recording in Ankara, Engin sent the recordings he made from Bodrum, and they were all put together in the end. Our habitual sharing, how much we value one another’s ideas, and the good communication we have between us helped us achieve unity. Starting with Sinan Sakızlı, I would also especially like to thank everyone who ensured this unity and worked on the recording and production.

Could we ask you to share your first memories of the Akbank Jazz Festival and your first performance there with us? What do you remember?

My first memory of the Akbank Jazz Festival would probably be as an audience member. Thanks to the festival, I had the opportunity to hear many beloved jazz masters perform live; Betty Carter, Cassandra Wilson, Charles Lloyd, James Carter, Christian Mc Bride, and Richard Galliano are among the first that come to mind. Outside of watching these live performances, memories like the conversation I had backstage with a legendary jazz singer like Betty Carter or Christian McBride leaving his bass behind during a post-show jam session at the club, only to improvise hip hop vocals are very valuable to me and still so colorful.

I think the first concert where I sang was in 2000, the festival’s 10th year, with Ali Perret’s project, “Mingus Trippin’.” Sharing the same stage as İmer Demirer (trumpet), Ricky Ford (tenor saxophone), Ali Perret (piano), Raci Pişmişoğlu (bass guitar), and Can Kozlu (drums) and performing Ali Perret’s arrangements of Charles Mingus’ “Weird Nightmare” and Duke Elington’s “Sound of Love” was an unforgettable and incredible experience for me. Ali Perret is an adventurous musician, composer, and phenomenal arranger who is always pursuing innovation without losing any of the respect he holds for the future. I first heard his work in the arrangements he’d created for a big orchestra that brought Polish and Turkish musicians together. Singing alongside musicians that were each more masterful than the other, though I’m not sure exactly how successful I was, it was incredibly exciting to try and pay Ali’s wonderful arrangements their due. Later we also recorded the project in the studio, however, the album wasn’t able to reach an audience, unfortunately.

From the beginning of your jazz career in the 1980’s until now, how do you view the development of jazz in Turkey, both as an artist and an educator? You’ve also previously described jazz musicians as a bit more curious, playful, and experimental. In this regard, can you speak about your approach to education?

These characteristics arise from the nature of the music that is being made, as well as a bit from choosing this path in life that always greets us with surprises. I see education less as a didactic approach and more as the sharing of knowledge and leading the way, as someone who has walked down certain paths already; in essence, just being a guide to the best of my abilities. Maybe I’m trying to break the feeling of loneliness I had in my youth sometimes. Over these years, in terms of [jazz’s] development, there are things that I’m both happy about and saddened by. The increasing interest from the youth and the ease that the Internet provides in accessing everything are the gratifying aspects of this. On the other hand, it is upsetting that the number of live music venues is decreasing. I trust the youth in this regard; I hope that they form their own environments. I dream of the days where we share and are able to act together more.

Can you talk to us a bit about the Sibel Köse Vocal Workshop that you founded? Where did the initial idea come from? And how has the organization taken shape over the years?

I first started holding workshops in Ankara at the Gordion Music Academy in the 90’s. Before that, I had taken some private classes, attended workshops held by Polish musicians at Bilkent [University], especially by Janusz Szprot, after which I travelled to Poland, attending the summer school where I would later be an educator. I had accumulated a certain amount of rare books, music notes, materials, etc., which wasn’t so easy to do at that time. Janusz Szprot was really supporting me in terms of being an educator, there were those who wanted to take classes from me, but I was shying away from it. My mother, my grandmother, my great aunts are all teachers. I didn’t see myself in that mold or that position. But still, thinking, “there might be things that I could share and that others could make use of” I began my workshops in Ankara. Since I had just newly moved to Istanbul during that time, I started going back and forth between Ankara and Istanbul, and this work continued for about a year or so more. After all this work, the year-end concert made me realize something: Independent of the number of participants, the family members, loved ones, and friends that came to see them perform formed a large group of people, and, maybe because of that, even those who had never seen a live jazz performance before enjoyably watched the concert with interest until the end. It was like throwing a stone into still water. The ripples surrounding this single stone were growing and spreading. This alone was reason enough for me to continue this work.

After that, I started my own workshop in Istanbul. For a while we held joint workshops with Randy Esen in Kemerburgaz. Following a period where I took a break, with my dear friend and partner Simla Ongan moving to Istanbul, we then got back to work. I can say that I’ve been a bridge between many of my esteemed musician friends and people who are interested in jazz and want to improve themselves. Believe me, there wouldn’t be enough space to count them all here, but many of my dear musician friends have always supported me throughout this process. It became a growing synergy. The concerts that we hold at the end of every year, which we’ve titled the “Warble Festival” (Şakıma Festivali), where participants display how much they’ve developed throughout the year by singing alongside an orchestra, have now started to draw larger crowds. I was also an educator at the summer school that I had previously attended in Poland for over a decade; I’ve facilitated the participation of many of my young friends’ in this summer program and their getting to know this beautiful country and its esteemed jazz musicians. I’ve also held clinics and master classes in foreign countries I’ve traveled to for concerts. Among these, attending the South African Association for Jazz Education’s conference with Kamil Erdem, to which we were invited by Dave Brubeck’s son, Darius Brubeck, holds a special place for me. At the same time, the work continues for my own workshops with dear Eylül Biçer and Evrim Özşuca, and I take part in the Bahçeşehir University jazz education programs, alongside dear Uraz Kıvaner and other esteemed educators that were brought together by the efforts of the lovely Yeşim Pekiner. I am also very happy to have been with dear Ece Göksu and a fantastic staff as part of Jazz Camp for the last two years. I daresay I’ve touched hundreds of people that I’ve been able to spend time with, some for short and some for longer periods of time. While among them have been children and teenagers I’ve witnessed grow up, there have also been adults who decided to change their lives, quit jobs they don’t enjoy and turn to music, move overseas to study or live. There have been those who have altered their professional course to music; they are doing wonderful things, each different from one another. There have been those who met and fell in love at the workshop and even got married. Days came where it rained, sometimes it snowed, sometimes the sun shone; there were bad days and chaos, followed by good days and peace. Due to the pandemic, we may not be able to come together physically, but now we continue to gather together and share online. I believe that music creates a strong bond between us, heals us all. I’ve met some of my most cherished friends through music. Everything that I’ve put into clearing paths for music, people, and life has as come back to me in spades, and perhaps I’ve been the one who has learned the most throughout this process. Now that I think about it, it might be one of the things I do best, and I am grateful to everyone who contributed and shared this journey with me.

Are there any projects you’ve been working on recently or that we might be hearing about soon?

We are getting ready to present the recordings made of the concert that we gave with Dutch pianist Michiel Borstlap at the Ankara Jazz Festival in 2015 as an album. Initiated and carried out by Özlem Oktar Varoğlu, who set the theme as “Love Songs,” and supported by Lütfi Varoğlu, the album features jazz standards that narrate different aspects of love. Performed and recorded in front of a live audience, the album will be pressed as a CD and LP in honor of the Jazz Society’s last 25 years. I believe it will be in music stores around New Year and also available to stream on digital platforms.

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