Wednesday, September 02, 2009
  Interview with Riza Arshad.

Apart from the singer Anggun, who's based in France, it's not often that an Indonesian group or artist, let alone a progressive jazz group, has an album released on an international label. Last month saw the international launch of simakDialog's fifth album, Demimasa, on MoonJune Records, based in New York, who also released their fourth album, Patahan.

Leonardo Pavkovic, proprietor of MoonJune, has said, "I have noticed that Indonesian jazz and prog musicians tend to have smooth jazz affinities: maybe they believe it is a safe way to make the music."

Speaking of the keyboardist and leader/composer of simakDialog, Leonardo says, "Riza Arshad is an amazing pianist with a great touch and the sensibility of an ECM artist."

This is the German label which first recorded Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell, and counts Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek and Eberhard Weber among its longstanding recording artists.

"I have been talking to Riza to liberate himself and challenge his artistic ego with an evolutionary and free music spirit, without being afraid to say musically what he wants to say. In other words, I am asking Riza to abandon the safe way of expressing himself and to experiment more."

In simakDialog Riza Arshad has the solid backing of the ubiquitous guitarist Tohpati with Adhithya Pratama on bass guitar. What adds the extra freer dimension to their music is the percussion triumvirate of Endang Ramdan, Erlan Suwardana and new member Emy Tata on Sundanese kendang percussion, tambourines, claps, toys and vocals.

Arshad's compositional approach opens up from a jazz-rock palette, but his Fender Rhodes electric piano is clearly influenced by the crisp ring and shimmer of Indonesian gamelan. He pushes his solos to continually higher levels, urging repeated climaxes as each piece steadily amasses intensity.

Arshad might begin in a contemplative mood, but it doesn't take him long to develop an insistent pulse. The percussionists soon enter, clattering out their organic patterns with roundly slapped skins, shakers, bells and handclaps. Tohpati is also attracted to resonant trebly zones, journeying from acoustic delicacy to a subtly distorted friction. Another element is added later, with the percussionists chanting along to emphasise their dense structures.

The result sounds both natural and fully integrated. This is a particular realm that couldn't be reached either by Western progressive musicians or a traditional gamelan ensemble. SimakDialog involves a unique combination of both spheres, without making the commercially tempting mistake of cultural dilution.

Last October I was invited to the Indonesian launch of Demimasa at Goethe Haus and conducted the following interview through an email exchange and a couple of meetings.

Firstly, how come you played in bare feet at Goethe Institute?

That is a traditional dress code, I first played barefoot back in 2002 in simakDialog's solo concert at Philharmonik Petronas' concert hall. I do this to try to catch the 'spirit' of the music. I can't imagine what would be my performance if I should dress any other way.

How did you become a jazz pianist rather than, say, a classical pianist.

I started to play at 6: classical music was the 'tool' for my first encounter with the piano. I found it difficult to concentrate as I was quite a rebellious kind of boy. I liked watching fish - this was so distracting.

I quit my course but began to play again at the age of 10, but 'naturally' by copying my early influence of classical music. I created 'original' tunes and began to enjoy the beauty of composing and improvising.

How did your early music develop?

Through my brother, Luke Arsyad, I got a lot of musical knowledge, mainly classical since we shared the same teacher, but also tons of 70's music especially those from art rock/classic rock genre (Yes, Genesis, ELP, Gentle Giant, the Who, Beatles etc.), and some jazz like Corea, Hancock, Davis, but not much.

I took a course of jazz music lessons for two and half years and then my brother asked me to join his art/rock band - Rara Ragadi. I was 15 years old at that time.

Through a friend, we were introduced to the guys in an Indonesian top rock band - God Bless (who have recently reformed), and through them we were introduced to a local record label guy named Slamet, the CEO of Duba Records. We recorded an album in 1978 which was released in 1979. The band only did a few shows as my brother and I started to work with another rock band - Godspell.

My brother moved to the US to pursue his studies and I enrolled in the art department of the Bandung Institute of Technology and joined the jazz community there and played some gigs. In 1983 I met my next jazz piano instructor to continue to study jazz music. After 8 months, I started another class of jazz studies, this time in Jakarta, so I had to travel back and forth between Bandung and Jakarta every week.

What was the influence on you of the first generation of Indonesian jazzers such as Jack Lesmana, Bill Saragih and Bubi Chen?

Huge. I went to their shows quite a lot and had the opportunity to play with them years later. Being able to play and hang with them was such a milestone in my musical career.

I studied with Jack Lesmana and his son Indra and worked as their assistant in their school until it closed in December 1989. Jack is famous for what he did to introduce jazz rock music in the early 70's in Jakarta. He sort of did what Miles (Davis) had done with jazz in the late 60's, being a huge influence on the later development of jazz and the music industry in this country.

Indra, incidentally, was a remarkable young jazz player, hailed by Leonard Feather, Downbeat magazine and Chick Corea for his amazing talent and he recorded a jazz album with Charlie Haden and Jack deJohnette at the age of 18.

As I became his student then good friends, at one point joining his band 'Reborn', his playing and ideas never let me down. His spirit inspires almost every jazz musician of my generation and the next and I have adopted his philosophy. Having determined my musical direction I have never taken the opportunity to become a good session player, as Tohpati has done.

When did you start recording your own music?

After a period producing indie artists with my brother, including my first solo album in 1992, I formed my original band Dialogue with long time cohorts - drummer Arie Ayunir and Dewa Budjana.

In December 1992 I changed the personnel of my original band and its name to 'simakDialog'. With my experience working and producing artists with my brother I started to build sense of my musical identity. Playing in an entirely western mode was no longer a challenge to me, which is why I like to have a specific sound and colour in my music.

Although my brother passed away in 1997, I continue his exploration and dream of making our music widely heard everywhere anywhere in the globe.

Which western jazz pianists do you feel have influenced you the most?

Hmm, difficult question, since every great player who I listen to is my number 1 star.

My most influential jazz pianists would be Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Thelonious Monk, Chick Corea, Marc Copeland, John Taylor and Lyle Mays, but my difficulty lies with choosing because I like players who are also composers.

Both aspects have a very important impact in developing my musical path. So, apart from those already named, other musical influences are Chopin, Debussy, Jan Garbarek, Coltrane or Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden, I Wayan Sadre (trad/contemporary composer), Jack deJohnette, Alan Holdsworth, Bill Frisell, Terje Rypdal, Pat Metheny or any great rock guitarists.

Where do see your own musical direction heading?

My first priority is still with simakDialog. Other than that, taking example Serambi Jazz as an example, my efforts are devoted for the growth of jazz in Indonesia.

You are the curator of Serambi Jazz at Goethe Haus. How did that come about?

They often invited me to play at their jazz events, but I couldn’t always be available for them. Plus, I didn’t think it would be good to feature me all the time. So, I offered them a new concept. A jazz concert every two months, featuring loads of talented musicians that have always dedicated their lives to music.

The chairman of Goethe Haus is a big music fan and he agreed right away and asked me to find the musicians.

I don’t want to dominate the Indonesian jazz scene by holding this event too often. I would love it if Indonesians could have a lot of variation in what they can see. We want to complement other jazz events, such as JakJazz, Java Jazz or the many smaller jazz events held regularly, such as Komunitas Jajan Jazz, KlabJazz’ Jazz Break Revival in Bandung, and so on. The more the merrier. We can see the development of Indonesia's jazz community through these many events.

How do you select the musicians featured at Serambi Jazz?

I decide based on who they are as musicians. They should be dedicated to Indonesian jazz development, in other words, someone who has decided to live their life as a jazz musician. I have a list of musicians who are very talented, but not yet widely known. Through Serambi Jazz events we hope we can introduce them so they get more appreciation.

What Indonesian musicians, jazz or any genre, are doing things you find interesting?

I rarely listen to a particular music or stay focussed on a certain style or player but listen to anything good for my ears and heart.
If you want to know what’s happening in the Indonesian jazz scene, subscribe to Jazzuality.com who supplied the picture of Riza.



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