“Wow”… In that moment of taut silence that hangs between the end of a piece and the first clap from an audience member, I heard someone at the next table say that one tiny but massive word like they really, really, meant it. “W-o-w”.
If the focused quiet while the band was playing, emphatic applause, and various expressions of praise and admiration overheard throughout the night are anything to go by, I think everyone else in the room was wowed by the Zela Margossian Quintet as well. The quintet, with only a handful of performances under their belt, was featured in this year’s Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival.
Their set included several of Zela’s original compositions, which often draw on Arabic and Armenian folk idioms, as well as two arrangements of pieces by internationally renowned composers: Parsegh Ganatchian (Lebanese-Armenian composer and conductor of the early 20th century) and Ara Dinkjian (Armenian-American contemporary oud player and song writer). Zela’s music has been variously described as “Armenian folk-jazz”, “ethno-jazz” or a “fusion of folk and jazz with traditional Armenian musical influences”. It’s hard to place a neat label on it.
Zela has pulled together a band of virtuosic performers and brilliant improvisers, well-known in local jazz and/or world music circles: Stuart Vandegraaff (woodwinds), Elsen Price (double bass), Adem Yilmaz (percussion) and Alexander Inman-Hislop (drum kit). Together they play with an undeniable synergy, ease and joy. At times playfully competitive on stage, they were rousing and impressive as performers, both individually and collectively. Zela herself was delightful and gracious in performance and in speaking to the audience, generously offering personal insights into her journey as a musician across her old and new homelands.
Raised in Beirut, Zela moved to Yerevan in her early 20’s to study at the Komitas Conservatorium. She migrated to Australia nine years ago and is currently studying jazz at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. I spoke with her, seeking to map her journey across continents and musical styles and experiences. I also wanted to learn more about the workings of the quintet itself and how it came to be. Zela’s answers to my questions came with the same warmth, sincerity and authenticity she exudes on stage, and offered a more nuanced understanding of her particular brand of jazz and her emergence as a jazz pianist and composer in Sydney.
Kiri: Can you tell me about your exposure to music in your formative years in Lebanon?
Zela: I am grateful for the opportunity I had to learn music seriously, mainly made possible by my mother’s efforts to keep me on track, as those years were tumultuous in Lebanon – we grew up during the war and the political situation was always unstable in Beirut.
I grew up being exposed to different kinds of music: Arabic/Lebanese folk music on TV, Armenian music in our household, at school and at musical college – the college was an Armenian establishment that also offered folk dance lessons and housed the Armenian theatre company. We sort of had our own little Armenia in the building. I was exposed to classical music through my music studies and then there was rock music, which I had a passion for during my teenage years. I didn’t have any exposure to jazz whatsoever.
How did studying at the Komitas Conservatorium in Armenia influence your musical development?
I was 22 when I moved to Yerevan to study a four-year Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance and an extra year for my Masters. I studied folk music and learnt how to accurately interpret works by Armenian composers. But, what grabbed me fully was the music I heard in the local jazz venues – the fusion of Armenian folk and jazz and the amazing compositions by the local jazz masters.
My first jaw-dropping experience of attending a performance in Yerevan was by The Armenian Navy Band led by Arto Tunçboyaciyan – a Grammy award winning avant-garde folk artist who has collaborated with many well-known jazz artists such as Joe Zawinul and Chet Baker. Another band that was an important source of inspiration as well was Vahagn and the Cats.
What has been your musical journey since arriving in Australia?
I migrated to Australia nine years ago. When I arrived, I had no idea what my future as a musician was going to be like. My heart was still in the jazz venues in Armenia, wishing that someday I would be able to do something similar with my own music. After a couple of years, I finally had enough courage to move a step closer towards this: I participated in the Young Women’s Jazz Workshops – an opportunity developed by Dr. Sandy Evans and the Sydney Improvised Music Association.
My first mentor was bassist Zoe Hauptmann, who has played a big role in pushing me forward into the scene and trusting in my abilities. I am forever grateful to her. All I experienced was encouragement and love from the mentors, and witnessing the all-female ensembles performing together was amazing.
My current degree at the Con is a Bachelor in Jazz Performance. My studies have been very rewarding. Inspiration and motivation can be found in a single sentence or an idea uttered by a mentor or listening to your classmates perform or a tune you are introduced to during a class. Judy Bailey has played an exceptional role in encouraging me to pursue what I am passionate about and to never give up. Matt McMahon has given me a lot of insight and guiding steps in my quest to understand jazz harmony and improvisation.
How do you describe your style? What do you think of the terms “ethno-jazz” and “Armenian folk-jazz” that have been used to describe your music?
To be honest, I don’t think there is a specific word to describe this genre of music. “Folk-jazz” or “ethno-jazz”, in my opinion, would be the closest to describe what I do as I am influenced by folk music, specifically Armenian folk and use jazz harmonies to give it colour in addition to improvisation. However, what I have noticed through my compositions is that not only Armenian influences are playing a role in my music, but also the Lebanese/Arabic music that I was exposed to while growing up in Beirut. I don’t think I am a part of the Armenian-folk jazz tradition, as I consider myself a hybrid of some sort. I don’t restrict myself to composing in a certain way or under one cultural umbrella.
Can you tell me more about your compositional process?
Usually, I start with a theme or a melody in my head. Sometimes it can be a single motif or a rhythmic idea, which I develop and put a line of music to. Sometimes I work in patches of ideas, which eventually become bridged together as I work on them. I have always loved rhythm and sometimes instead of a melodic line, I might have a rhythmic pattern in my head or a powerful build up of a rhythmic structure.
It is really evident that the band works beautifully together. What makes the synergy so good? How did you pull the quintet together?
I cannot describe how much joy I feel when I am performing with my band mates. Yes, the synergy is indeed so good and I think that’s due to the fact that each and every one of them is incredible at what they do. One other aspect is the respect we have for one another and I think honesty plays a big role as well. On top of all that, all of them are humble, caring individuals and I think that is evident in the overall bond we have together as a band.
In terms of how we came together, I believe that we all found one another. At some point, our paths crossed and we created something special together. When I was performing in Mythra Ensemble a few years back, I developed a special bond with Metin Yilmaz and Adem Yilmaz. We just seemed to be on the same page musically, and on a personal level we became very good friends. Our similar cultural backgrounds and their great expertise made it possible for me to compose pieces that I was certain they would be able to play and interpret correctly. Adem’s amazing talent and great energy towards his craft gives me so much inspiration and ideas for my compositions. It’s a great learning experience for me just playing music with him.
After Metin moved overseas, Adem introduced me to Stuart, who has an extensive background in middle-eastern music and is a great improviser. He quickly fit in and his input in the overall sound has been phenomenal. Elsen is one of the most versatile double bass players I have ever seen. He can play anything on the double bass and makes it sound fantastic. Collaborating together happened very naturally and we now play together as part of my band and as part of Plait, Elsen’s own band. I met Alex through my studies at the conservatorium. I asked him to play one of my compositions with me and the result was exactly what I had in mind although we had very little time to prepare. From then on, I have been lucky to have Alex’s input in the band and his creative approach towards my pieces.
Where to from here? What are your aspirations for the Zela Margossian Quintet?
To be honest, I don’t know. I am at a point in my life where I have learnt to be patient and take things as they come. I am grateful for what I am doing now and I am taking it step by step. My aspirations are not big at the moment. I believe that one thing leads to the next and that’s why for the time being, my goal is completing and recording an album with the hope that it will bring joy to people as much as the process of it is bringing joy to me.
Kiri Zakinthinos has worked in the creative industries in diverse roles within local government and the non-profit sector in both the visual and performing arts. She holds a Bachelor of Music from UNSW and a Graduate Diploma in Arts Management/Creative and Cultural Industries Management from UTS. Her long running interest in arts practices informed by cultural and linguistic diversity led her to establish Arts Diaspora Inc. (2011 – 2015), producing cross-cultural concerts, community workshops and a children’s theatre show in key venues. Kiri currently works in production and marketing in the music sector. She writes about cultural diversity in the arts at: www.culturalomnivore.blog