FIVE QUESTIONS WITH ASAF SIRKIS
Petah-Tikva, Israel-born Asaf Sirkis excels in both lead and supporting roles, as evidenced by two recent releases featuring the drummer. A few months ago, Mark Wingfield's trio album Proof of Light crossed our path, and we came away suitably impressed by not only the guitarist's playing but Sirkis's, too. And shortly after that, we received the late-2014 release Come To Me, this one featuring Sirkis co-leading with Polish Singer Sylwia Balias The Sirkis/Bialas International Quartet. In addition to these releases, he's appeared on numerous other albums and been a part of an equally large number of diverse playing situations. He formed his first trio in 1995, followed it a year later with a church organ-electric guitar-and-drums outfit called The Inner Noise, and after settling in London in 1999 established (with Gilad Atzmon) The Orient House Ensemble, initiated an enduring collaboration with saxophonist Tim Garland, formed the Asaf Sirkis Trio in 2007, and also commenced working with Larry Coryell and Jeff Berlin in another trio. Remarkably, such projects represent a modest sampling of the ones with which he's been involved. textura recently spoke with Sirkis about his various projects and the different drumming approaches he brings to such different contexts.
1. You play in a number of different outfits, including your own Asaf Sirkis Trio (with Greek guitarist Tassos Spiliotopoulos and Israeli bassist Yaron Stavi) and the Sirkis/Bialas International Quartet with Polish singer Sylwia Bialas, and you and Stavi recently played with guitarist Mark Wingfield on his Proof of Light album. Do you modify your playing style to fit each of these group contexts, and if so in what way specifically do you do so?
Yes, each one of these project requires a slightly different style of drumming and mostly, different kind of band interactions. I normally use a bigger rock-styled kit for the more electric type of projects like my trio with Tassos and Yaron or with Mark Wingfield and a more subtle or jazzy-sounding kit for bands like The Sirkis/Bialas International Quartet; sometimes, I use different cymbals. too. But mostly I find that the aspect that modifies my playing the most is the particular interaction between the musicians in each band and the sound that each musician makes. For example, Frank Harrison, the pianist in the Sirkis/Bialas Quartet, has a very special way of using a lot of space between the notes he plays. This really sets up the vibe for all of us in the band to play in a certain way. Or when Tassos plays a tune in the trio with his unique guitar sound, that usually provokes a more rock-styled approach from me.
2. The recent Sirkis/Bialas International Quartet album Come To Me is striking on many levels, but something that especially stands out for me is the way in which the customary balance between the singer and accompanying rhythm section is overturned when you, Bialas, pianist Frank Harrison, and electric bassist Patrick Bettison share status of equal importance within the group. How, first of all, did the group come into being, and secondly, was this concept of balance something you determined at the outset or was it something that naturally asserted itself as the four of you started playing together?
In the autumn of 2013, Sylwia Bialas and I had an idea about creating a band together and thought about the musicians we love playing with the most and how to put it all together. I'd already known Patrick and Frank from previous projects. We wanted to create a musical situation where the music and the band comes first. The two of us were interested in creating a definitive band sound that would showcase not only our music but everyone in the band. She was very particular about being a part of the band, using her voice as an instrument and about getting away from the singer-versus-rhythm section cliché.
By December and January, we had all of the music ready and somehow an opportunity fell into my hands to play a few concerts in the UK in March with the band. We were able to fly Patrick over from Florida as well as Sylwia, who was living in Germany at the time, to do this first tour and go straight into the studio afterwards. The album came together very quickly, and things accelerated from there. We're playing more and more concerts now, and we feel very strongly about this project, this band whose sound continues to develop.
3. You were born in Petah-Tikva, Israel in 1969, spent your teen years and early twenties in Rehovot, and, after completing your compulsory national service between 1987-1990, moved to Tel-Aviv in 1993 before eventually settling in London, England in 1999. It would be hard to imagine that the cultural experiences you had growing up didn't exert a profound influence on your current work. How exactly do those experiences manifest themselves in the music you're creating today?
Absolutely. Well, firstly, growing up in Israel I was exposed to so many different cultures and kinds of music. Israel is a big mix of people from so many different places; there's Arabic music, classical music, Balkan music, North African, East European music, Klezmer, zazz, avant-garde, and everything in between.
When I started working as a musician, I was playing so many different kinds of music; I guess that I learned how to adjust to different musical situations very easily. One of my first influences was the music that my dad listened to when I was growing up. He listened to a lot of Bach and other classical composers of that time. I particularly remember the sounds of the church organ. The sound of the church organ really stayed with me for many years, and in 1997 I started composing music for the instrument and formed the ‘Inner Noise' band, which was a church organ trio featuring Steve Lodder on organ and Mike Outram on guitar. On the other hand, I spent a lot of my teens hearing Yamanite music as we were living in the Yamanite quarter of Rehovot, my home town. Their unique music, grooves, and way of singing left a profound mark on me. The Yamanite drummers always play differently than other drummers; they have this very special ability to ‘bend' and ‘stretch' the rhythm; they never played it straight. I found that quite fascinating, and whenever I had a chance, I'd play in that way.
4. A number of groups you've played in involve the trio format, whether it be the Asaf Sirkis Trio, the Mark Wingfield recording, or the Power Trio project. I'm especially interested in hearing what it has been like for you to play in the latter outfit, given that it features the one-time Eleventh House great Larry Coryell and one of the premier fusion bassists Jeff Berlin. How is the experience different for you as the drummer playing behind Coryell versus Wingfield or Spiliotopoulos ? And are there plans for a Power Trio album to happen?
Electric trio has always been one of my favourite musical formats. When I started playing with Larry Coryell (with Larry, myself, and Jeff Berlin) around 2005, that inspired me to form a similar band trio, which is how the trio with Tassos and Yaron began.
It's kind of hard to explain how exactly it is different to play behind Larry, Mark, or Tassos. Each one of these great guitarists inspires me and draws and something different out of my playing. Playing with Larry was one of the most exciting points in my early years in London. Here I had a chance to play with some of my jazz-rock heroes! I remember hearing both Larry and Jeff on albums I really liked, such as Road Games (Allan Holdsworth) and Larry's Eleventh House Band. I also got to see them both play live in Israel when I was in my teens.
I guess that with Larry it's the swing, the groove and the energy that we're going for. Larry often picks simple and easy tunes to play so that everyone in the band can really go for it and extend as much as possible without worrying about the notes. With Mark there's a kind of meditative quality to the music. I feel there's a lot Mark and I have in common musically, his way of writing and way of soloing, etc. For me, playing with Mark is the closest thing to playing my own music. With Tassos it's more about the melodic aspect and the intimacy of the music. Tassos is also a wonderful composer; I've played on a couple of his solo albums, which was a great experience.
5. Finally, there are a number of videos at YouTube that feature you discussing and demonstrating Konnakol. What exactly is that?
Konnakol is the art of South Indian vocal percussion. I've been listening to South Indian music since my early twenties and was particularly drawn to this music because of its rhythmic aspect. In London I met the great master of Mridangam (South Indian percussion instrument), Paramasany Kirupakaran, who teaches me to this day about Konnakol at the Tamil Centre in West London. I had the honour of playing classical South Indian music concerts with him in recent years as well as other Indian percussion ensembles.I feel very strongly that Konnakol is both the most advanced and most clear way of mastering rhythm. I use it a lot in my practice, my playing, and my teaching. When I started to learn it, I could really feel how it revolutionized my whole playing style and rhythmic approach. I'm very passionate about sharing this beautiful and ancient form of art with other musicians so that they can benefit from it.