For the second year in a row, as part of the 25th Istanbul Jazz Festival, the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts organized an exhibition of local music called "Vitrin: Showcase for Contemporary Music from Turkey." Aligned with the festival's mission of expanding intercultural dialogue, Vitrin's objective was to introduce 30 artists and ensembles from Turkey to international delegates and journalists from various countries. Pianist, composer, arranger and producer Çağrı Sertel was among the artists selected to perform. On June 27, he took to the stage of the SALON IKSV to play a set of energetic music from his latest album, 2017's Instant, alongside guitarist Sarp Maden, bassist Volkan Hürsever, and drummer Volkan Öktem.
Sertel’s genre-defying fusion draws on influences from contemporary jazz and progressive rock. Listeners were first introduced to him through his 2010 debut album, Newborn. Yet, it took the pianist seven years to record his sophomore album of original compositions. JAZZIZ caught up with him the day after his Vitrin performance to talk about the origins and influences of his music, as well as the reason it took him seven years to record his second album.
JAZZIZ: When did you discover your passion for music?
Çağrı Sertel: I started at the age of 12. My cousin spent a year with us while studying in university and played a toy keyboard at home. It got me. I saw it and said, “I want to try it. Please show me how.” But I really began dreaming about starting a career as a musician before college, and after I started writing and creating music of my own. At that time, it was also still a game to me; I was having so much fun writing music. And that’s what it’s all about.
What were you writing music about?
Mostly about being in love. But I also developed my ways of thinking about music by transcribing. I was listening to so much music and trying to play it by ear. That helped me a lot. In my college days, I was listening to New Age stuff. Right now I never listen to it...I guess I was young. I was also listening to rock music and pop, but not jazz. I started listening to jazz right before university and it changed everything.
Before university, I was writing chamber music - big stuff with strings, horns and woodwinds. I was into that stuff and I still am. But once I started listening to jazz, I was taken by its construction. It’s so simple and yet you can do everything with just a piano, bass and drums, for example. That simplicity amazed me.
Are you inspired by the potential of this simplicity?
Yes, but I also know that in that simplicity there can be so many complicated things. When I write music, I challenge myself a little but mostly I try not to, because when you challenge yourself too much, it doesn’t sound good for me - it doesn’t sound organic, it doesn’t flow. But that’s just the way I feel. Other people that listen to me and the kind of music I make tend not to think so...
Does that also define how you approach performing music?
When performing music, it’s always a challenge. You try something different all the time and sometimes things can go wrong. In those moments you have to be okay about it because the show must go on. You have to realize that some things are not the way that you thought they would be - but it happens. But I’m talking about the really little moments. Seconds. Like, when I play a phrase that I don’t like. That kind of thing.
The kind of thing that maybe only you notice. Are you your biggest critic?
Yeah, I think so. I think most of us are like that.
Why did it take you seven years to record Instant, your second album?
Too many things happened in between. I don’t make my own music all the time. I also produce and arrange for other projects. I got a little lost in too many things. When I realized, I said to myself, “What’s going on?” During that time, I was writing some stuff, but most of the music on the new album happened in one year. Most of the tunes are brand new. In 2016, I was in a depression and I realized that I had to do what makes me happy and wanted to do this second album. I reminded myself that I can also write music of my own. It really helped me. This album is me going up, from a moral low point to the top.
Was your depression due to the fact that you weren't making music and you weren't creative?
Not only that. All of us live our lives and have troubles in our lives. I was still writing and still creating, because the arranging and producing projects are also creative. But I was doing too many things and not working on my own stuff.
Doing too much can get overwhelming...
Yeah, it's bad actually. You have to learn how to manage your career with better care.
Did you find that during those seven years you had changed as a musician and composer?
Oh, yeah. My way of thinking has changed in the music. Most of us musicians are influenced by the music we listen to. Back in the day, I was listening to so much Nordic jazz. Now, I also listen to New York jazz. I still like European jazz more, but I listen to so many different things.
Any specific Turkish influences?
Aydin Esen. He's a master. He influenced me a lot when I was growing up. I had the chance to work with him also; we had a masterclass. You can learn ten years' worth of things in one masterclass with him. He's that kind of man; he's my master. He's my mentor. And his music is amazing.
Can you tell me a little bit about the musicians that you play with?
They’re my closest friends. We’ve known each other for twelve years, maybe more. We were playing with different bands at the time, but when this album came up, I knew I wanted to do it with them. They are the same guys that performed with me yesterday.
I noticed that you were familiar with each other in the way that you interacted with one another on stage. And I also noticed that you guys had a lot of fun playing together.
We’re really close friends and we have so much fun on stage. The music gives me that power also. I like to write energetic music. At the same time, I don't specify my music as jazz; I don’t like describing it as jazz, pop, rock… I try to be transparent about music and genre-free.
What would your definition of jazz be?
I think over the last ten years, all genres have come together and you can hear everything and every sound in it, so it’s really tough to define. Other people may say, “come on, there’s R&B, rock, jazz and you have to separate them.” But I use so many different things in my music that I just can’t.
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