Ok ok, so I’ve had a rocky relationship with jazz in the past. Jazz and I have split up a few times, taken each other to task, we’ve each tried to impress friends with our wit, our sophistication, but I’m no expert. Instead, that title can be handed over to Mr. Yunus Belgin, a jazz drummer who knows his stuff and who has put in an insane amount of time and dedication to becoming an elite performer.
I thought that stepping into an interview with Mr. Belgin would be like talking to a rocket scientist, or any other acclaimed professional whose work I knew nothing about. After all, the guy has performed with more than half a dozen different groups, he’s headed on a European tour next year, he’s worked with some of the best in the business, and he even leads a weekly gig at the world-famous Wally’s Cafe Jazz Club in Boston.
I’m happy to say this feeling died off quickly. Yunus Belgin is warm and vibrant, and when it comes to jazz he is evangelical, wanting to share his passion for the genre, make clear to novices like me that jazz, especially in a live setting, is a living thing. It breathes, it bobs and weaves, and without a responsive audience and versatile players, it dies on the vine.
Can you tell us about the differences between the many different groups you play with? Does each group play within very different styles of jazz?
Each group surely is different. Even if you take one group and one particular song, that song wouldn’t be played the same each time. It would most likely venture into an uncharted territory. This is the very essence of jazz. It is very emotional, spontaneous and ever changing and this applies to every group that I’m involved in. Of course there are the obvious stylistic differences, some groups I play with lean more towards the hard-bop era, whereas other groups have a more modern expression, but generally speaking the more subtle differences between the groups that I play depend on the many intimate inter-personal relationships that exist between us musicians. The chemistry that exists between a bass player and myself that I have known and played with for a couple of years, is a lot strong than some of the newer bass players that I am playing with currently and this of course affects the music in a slight way.
Do you find that your friends and family have taken on a different understanding of jazz given your extensive involvement playing it?
I believe that this is the case to a certain extent. Even though none of my family members are musicians, they are avid listeners to music and I feel fortunate enough to have been exposed to a diverse range of Funk, Pop, Rock, Latin, Jazz and World music at a very young age, which was part of the reason why I chose to pursue a musical career. I would say that my extensive involvement in Jazz music has increased their overall understanding and appreciation to this difficult art form, definitely making them enjoy it a lot more, especially in a live setting. They have a closer connection to it for sure.
Do you notice differences in the audience between the different cities you’ve performed in? Do you have a favorite city so far?
The audience does vary depending on the city and it’s historical background and tradition to music. Boston is my favorite city to play in as I’m familiar with the live setting and the audience is not too critical and not too loose. New York City on the other hand is a lot more critical and can be rough at times due to the obvious reason of it being the Mecca of Jazz. In Europe there is a blend of all types of audiences.
What role do you think jazz has in contemporary society?
Socially and politically speaking this can be a touchy subject but there is an inevitable truth about jazz, which is that it is an African-American language. I learned this from my African-American mentors that in order to deal with the highest form of expression you have to understand and accept the history of this music.
Which jazz artists would you recommend to people who have not previously listened to very much jazz?
In my experience and from what I know from my peers, it’s uncommon for a listener who hasn’t listened to much jazz to instantly fall in love with a classic jazz recording straight by just listening to it. Usually you warm up to it through a different entry point in musical history, which in my case was listening to The Headhunters which was Herbie Hancock’s jazz/fusion project established much later in his musical career, after he had played with Miles Davis in the Second Great Quintet. From that point jazz made more sense to me and I started listening to all the jazz giants including Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and all the musicians associated to them who had their own projects.
Do you use the same kit/set-up for all of your performances or do you alter it for different groups?
Definitely depends on the type of gig. For gospel music I use heavier cymbals and tune the drums low and often use a larger kit with more toms because that is the sound that fits the music most appropriately. For jazz music I prefer to use lighter cymbals and tune the drums higher and generally use a 4 piece kit, for the specific sound conception I am going for.
What do you feel is your greatest asset as a drummer?
I think the answer to this question is the same for all drummers in general, which is groove, swing or “that thing” whatever you want to call it. This is because our primary role as drummers is to provide this invisible yet irresistible force in music that makes it impossible for the listener to sit still. In jazz music this force is conveyed through the ride cymbal beat which is the most important component for a jazz drummer because it leads the whole band, and this is what I work on and refine everyday.