A Nod to Home: Greece and Turkey Seep Into Jazz with the Thrilling New Band “Yiasena”

Ozzy Duzenli Yiasena band 1

Edgy minor modes and fun percussion riffs plus Greco-Turkish strains in the chameleon-like tune “Tamara Deli Horon” are the kinds of interesting nugget-bites you will find with the quintet called Yiasena. A mixed bag for sure. More serene, “Gianni Mou to Mantili Sou” (loosely translated to “My John, Your Handkerchief”) has an intro with the whole ensemble, but when the sax breaks into her solo she shows incredible chops, scorching the ground when she’s done.     

The band is brand-spanking new. So far, so good: rife with creativity, energy and sonic surprises. With lots of years of experience among the five members, it’s going to be great fun to watch them grow together.

When and why did you form Yiasena and what does the name mean?

(Ozzy Duzenli) – We formed Yiasena in around mid-2017, while we were studying together at Middlesex University in London. Sofia is from Greece, and I was born in London and raised in a Turkish family. We came together through great admiration of our traditional music, and love of jazz and creative improvisational music, which began as the basis and foundation of our project: to combine the two and see what we could achieve.

(Sofia Roubati) – The name means FOR YOU (our audience). It is a combination of two Greek words (yia:for, sena: you). We also thought this is a name that represents us, as we believe it’s important to bring tradition closer to people. And make them find their own truth in our music.

Talk about your band members and what they’re great at.

We are all so different, coming from different backgrounds and stories. We believe that each member in the band plays an essential role in creating the sound and energy of our group. On the drums we have Dougal Taylor, a groove machine who can hold down the tricky time signatures with style; a solid base. He’s paired with our double bassist, Joe Boyle, who is a powerhouse, taking influence from the great Mingus. He’s like the butter to Dougal’s bread. They have experience playing together before we started, and work great as a rhythm section.

On tenor, we have James Mollison, a big sound who fills up the bottom end of the melodies, a powerful and lyrical soloist.

When did you learn your instruments, when did you know you wanted to have a career in music?

(Sofia/sax)- I started studying classical music and piano. I was lucky enough to attend the Music High School of Pallini. It was at my high school that I began to learn saxophone and have a closer contact with traditional Greek music. We listened to jazz a lot at home. My father loves it, and I had the chance to be a part of the jazz ensemble at my school when I was around 15 years old.

I am not sure when I decided to become a musician. But I believe was at the back of my head since I was quite young.

(Ozzy/guitar) – I first started learning guitar at the age of 11, at high school. I was very lucky to go to a school which had an emphasis on music. I received lessons from a guitarist named Cameron Pierre. To this day, I still see him as my mentor, and am very thankful to have met him.

I took part in a creative learning project called Impossibilities at the Barbican Centre led by a guitarist named Paul Griffiths. It was after this, I knew I wanted to learn more. I went to Middlesex University in 2014 to study jazz, knowing almost nothing about it, and graduated in June 2017. But the learning never stops. 

When did you each move to the UK?

(Sofia)- I moved to London at the age of 19, in order to start my BA in jazz at Middlesex University. I decided to come to London because of the wealth of opportunities here. Besides that, there are people from all around the world, and you talk, learn and interact with them and together you can create something magical that has an essence of each one’s background.

What is the jazz scene like today in Turkey and Greece?

(Ozzy) – There’s been a jazz scene in Turkey from the 1960s and the Istanbul Jazz Festival is one of the biggest in Turkey. Musicians there have always sought to incorporate elements from traditional music into the vehicle of jazz and creative improvisational music, because almost every single musician loves and admires our musical traditions.

(Sofia) – Every year the scene there is growing and more young people are getting involved. We have great musicians that are spread all around the world.

Who are your musical heroes?

(Ozzy) – That’s a hard one, the list is too long. There’s Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Barry Harris, Jimi Hendrix…just to name a few. I could sit here all day and name my heroes. They are all innovators and strove to be better as artists, to keep moving forward and never stop progressing.

(Sofia) – I shouldn’t forget to add Cannonball Adderley.

It’s essential to find heroes who are around now. People who achieved what we want to do and are doing their best to serve the music. You see them on stage and you feel a satisfactory feeling of greatness. Two of these artists are Magda Giannikou (BandaMagda) and Petros Klampanis, both based in New York City. I had the chance to see Magda Giannikou at her album release “Tigre” in New York. The music was magnificent but most importantly her energy was unstoppable. Not many artists make you feel welcome when you see them live on stage.

How is jazz evolving?

(Ozzy) – Every day, music is evolving with thousands of musicians striving to take the art further and further. You just have to go online and see. I’m in this group on Facebook called Jam of The Week, where every week there’s a song or a theme, and musicians upload videos of themselves playing/blowing over a different song every week. It’s really inspiring and has a great community of people from around the world.

What do you find most exciting—the harmonies, melodies, rhythms, groove?

(Sofia) – I find everything exciting. We need all of these to create what we want. Many times, traditional music is about the lyrics, the story that is being told through them. Being an instrumental band, this is a challenge. We need to use the harmony, the rhythm and the groove so we can tell that story as well as we can.

(Ozzy) – The thing that excites me the most is definitely the rhythm and groove. It’s what gets you going. There are so many dance songs with such strong, captivating melodies and lines that fit in with these rhythms and grooves.

What chord progressions and modes do you like the most?

(Ozzy) – For me personally, I love the changes to “Cherokee.” What made me love this song was Charlie Parker. He was obsessed with it, and you can tell when you hear him play, in all the recordings he has done on the changes of this song and the way he plays over this tune always speaks to me. He’s a true master of the art.

About the modes, I’ve never really thought about that. If I had to answer it would probably be Lydian Dominant. I like the crunchy sound. Nevertheless, you gotta show love to all the modes.

(Sofia) –  I like more the modal sound. Like “All Blues” or “So What” by Miles Davis. I find it exciting that you can approach these sounds so many different ways. Even in our arrangements/compositions we use the modes a lot.  

How many guitars/saxes do you each own and which do you prefer for performance?

(Ozzy) – I have five guitars. I have two archtops, one semi-hollow body electric and one solid body electric, and one acoustic. I use all my guitars. I like to use the archtops to play straight-ahead jazz, where I play with no effects pedals. The archtops provide a nice warm, big sound. When I play with Yiasena, I use my solid body, a custom-built Japanese Fender Squier with a neck from the 90’s and the body from the 70’s. It’s a special guitar as it was given to me as a gift by Cameron as my first ever electric guitar almost 10 years ago. I love it.

(Sofia)- That’s a funny one. In contrast to Ozzy, I only have two instruments. Horn players don’t really need more than one alto saxophone. I got my first saxophone when I was 12 which my dad gave to me. My favorite one is the one I currently have. It’s a vintage Selmer, Super Action Balanced, from the 1950’s.

“Billie’s Bounce” – fast finger work and very smooth. Talk about how you stay calm and cool with a piece like that.

(Ozzy) – There is no secret to playing this blues. The key is just practicing with the record over and over again until you can play it without thinking, until you know all the chord changes inside out, so you are free to improvise without thinking too much about what’s coming next so you can be as melodic and fluid as possible and sound the best you can.

How easily does your personnel fall in with your new compositions?

(Ozzy) – All the songs we play in our band are either arranged or composed. No matter what I’m writing I always have in mind who will play the songs or parts. I think about each player and how I can write to make their qualities shine through, and also push them past what they think their limits are. Once everyone is pushing, then I believe this is where the music really comes together.

(Sofia) – I love this part of the work. I really like the process. Either it’s an arrangement or a composition; you have to take a trip to understand what the song is talking about or what you want to talk about. After that you have to sit down and try to find the best way to do it.

What themes inspire you when you compose?

(Ozzy) – I always think about my favorite musicians/songs and think why I like them and what makes them great. Then I take inspiration from those and take some features and see what I can do to adapt and change it to fit the band, and the direction we are trying to head towards.

(Sofia) –  I think inspiration comes from my memories. It could be a day at the beach or a trip, some friends or family. I guess the worlds around me. And of course, all the musicians I admire.

Where is your head when you play?

(Ozzy) – I always put 100% of my attention on the soloist, how I can support and accompany the soloist and make him or her sound the best s/he can while playing. When it’s my turn soloing, I always have my ears on the rhythm section, listening to what they are doing and where they are, and always trying to lock in with their groove and react to them, trying to create a musical conversation.

(Sofia) – He is right. It’s all about a musical conversation. Without this we are overthinking it. The most important is to enjoy it, after all.

How do the band members give each other space for solos?

 (Ozzy) – To stop the songs going on for too long as it can bore the listeners, we decide who’s going to solo on what beforehand. It leaves enough space for whoever is soloing to extend their solos to make it grow, without having to cut it short so everyone can have a blow.

What do you like most about your band and in what areas would you like to grow?

(Ozzy) The thing I like the most is that all of them, Sofia, James, Joe and Dougal, always bring 100% when they play and perform. It’s a great feeling when the band is giving it their all.  

(Sofia) – We have a long way to go, of course. We are a new band and it’ll take some time to grow. We just need to do our best, play the music as well as we can and try to get it out there. The rest will come later!

Latest CD?

(Ozzy) – Watch this space. We will be recording some things that we’ve been working on in February. We’ll see where it takes us!

Favorite venue to play in the UK?

(Ozzy) – I loved playing at The Vortex, it’s in the heart of East London. There are always great people playing there and it’s got a nice intimacy.

(Sofia) – Yes, that’s a good one. But there are so many venues around here, each one of them with a different vibe.

What are the elements of music from Greece and Turkey that inspire you today? 

(Ozzy) – The folk music always has a story to tell, and playing this kind of music, the most important thing is to get it across to the audience.

(Sofia) – Traditional music is a history lesson. It carries the truths of each civilization, the pain and the happiness of the people. It is our duty to maintain all these and be extra careful when we perform this music.

Give an example of a song that uses these influences.

(Sofia) – One of the songs I arranged is from my dad’s hometown Ioannina (Epirus, Greece). It’s called  “Gianni Mou to Mantili Sou.” It’s a good example of what we do. The lyrics of this song express the despair of the mother because of her son, Giannis, has to travel to a foreign land to find work. It’s an old song talking about another era, but at the same time, many of us can relate to it. It’s about having to go somewhere else to find your luck, to chase your dreams.

Place you have always wanted to perform?

(Ozzy) – Love Supreme Festival. They bring great artists, they always have a great line-up of musicians and bands from the U.K and around the world.

(Sofia) – But there are so many festivals around, I think we would be lucky to play in any of them!

What are your plans to grow your presence in 2018?

(Sofia) – That’s a hard one. We want to play more. We are a new band so the more we play the better. We have a recording coming up and a few confirmed gigs. We are working on some other stuff that we hope to announce soon.  

Other comments?

We would like to thank you, Debbie, for inviting us to do the interview and giving us this great opportunity!

For more information, visit @yiasenaband on Facebook or www.soundcloud.com/yiasena.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Sofia Roubati and Ozzy Duzenli.

© Debbie Burke 2018

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