Appearing as part of the Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival, ARIA nominees Zela Margossian Quintet showcase a fusion of Armenian and Middle Eastern music, classical and jazz at Studios 301 on November 16th.
By Jacob Stone
Pianist Zela Margossian is an ARIA nominated musician whose area of expertise is fusing jazz and classical with the Armenian ethnic and middle eastern music that dominated her childhood in Beirut.
Playing as a quintet, Margossian’s arrangements draw the listener into her idiosyncratic world – where the ticking, circular rhythms of Armenian music and Tunisian melodies trade places with improvisational jazz and classical techniques.
It’s a passionate area of study for the pianist, who balances the technical prowess in classical music attained at the Lebanese Higher State Conservatory and the Yerevan Komitas State Conservatory (where she earned a Master’s degree in piano performance) with the folk influence that is present in everything she composes for her Quintet.
Her debut album ‘Transition’ was a huge leap for the formerly classically-oriented player and composer, showing Margossian’s courage, broadening the scope of her compositions into territory that even the young songwriter can’t easily articulate.
“I have a structure in my head, and I can’t explain it”, Margossian told the UK’s JazzWise magazine.
“When I sit down, it’s in my head and I try to hear how it would sound with the band. That’s what guides me. There is no method, it’s really organic.”
“I’ve played classical music so much in my life, it just comes out. I don’t think about it. The same is true for the Arabic and Middle Eastern music.”
When asked which is the most challenging aspect of her fusion of styles, Margossian nominates jazz harmonies.
“I can hear them in my head, but sometimes I have to experiment with it by searching out which one I’m hearing” she admits, laughing. “I analyse what I’ve written AFTER I write it!”
Downbeat magazine reviewed her debut, accurately describing Margossian carving out ‘…an entrancing and dazzlingly unique kaleidoscopic niche’.
Her debut single ‘Ceasefire’ is a wonderful example of Margossian’s clean and sophisticated fusion of disparate influences sewn together with melodic hooks that anchor improvisational moments.
The reedy warmth of Stuart Vandergraaff’s clarinet mirrors Adam Yilmaz’ looping, clattering percussion and Margossian’s circular piano acts as a hypnotic central figure. It’s an immersive and satisfyingly varied experience.
Interestingly, Margossian wrote the song not about conflict, but about the treasured moments of playtime as a child during Beirut’s bloody civil war.
“Lebanon was always unstable. We were very young when the war started, but I clearly remember it”, she explains. “We lived in a basement bunker, and had to spend a lot of time there. We didn’t go to school for a whole year, and it was fun, strangely.”
“I don’t want to say that it was fun during the war, but the ceasefire times were beautiful. We would hear that figure, a melody like the one in our song ‘Ceasefire’, and know it was time to go outside and play soccer.”
“I wish that for the whole world – ceasefire, and peace.”
Her eventual migration from Lebanon back to Armenia set in motion a diaspora that took Margossian from Armenia to Australia to rejoin her brother, and eventually saw her parents move here five years ago.
“When I was studying I got the opportunity to go to Armenia, and it’s the greatest decision I made, because it brought me closer to my heritage and the music. Now Australia is my home. It has been so good to me, and offered me so many opportunities.”
Her debut album ’Transition’ was nominated for an ARIA Award this year for Best World Music Album in 2019.
Her upcoming appearance for the Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival will be Margossian’s second, and the second time she’s ventured into meshing live performance and live studio recording.
The Zela Margossian Quintet will appear live at Sydney’s world class recording facility Studios 301 in Alexandria on November 16th as a feature element of 2019’s Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival program.
Studios 301 in Alexandria are the result SAE millionaire Tom Misner’s vision and acoustician Jochen Veith’s attention to detail in build and sound quality. Audiotechnology.com recognises the quality of craftsmanship that went into creating the space, describing 301 as “… a studio with impeccable acoustics and a gobsmacking selection of gear that can handle any job.”
The list of performers who’ve produced records with staff at Studios 301 is impressive, featuring names like Amy Shark, Chainsmokers feat. Chris Martin (Coldplay), Julia Stone, Justin Bieber, Guy Sebastian and Jimmy Barnes.
Zela Margossian Quintet performing live in Studios 301 is a rare and exciting opportunity for audiences to experience the music as it’s being made and recorded. Fans will be able to purchase the recording once the performance is mixed and mastered.
The prestigious surrounds of Studios 301 are the perfect setting to experience the complexity and layers of Margossian’s music. Her quintet have a road-hardened musical camaraderie, born over years of international shows.
“I’ve noticed that, after travelling together for performances, no matter how tired we are, we have a sense of calm on stage before the performance starts, which is a great feeling” she says.
“The same happened in Beirut Jazz Festival. It was hectic; we had to wait two hours to perform, and I was worried because I was back in my hometown doing something so different, but it all worked out.”
“For this performance, considering that we are going to be recorded, it will offer that extra rush. Listening back to it will be very special, as it will have the energy of a live performance in it which is different to a studio album recording.”
When asked why she wanted to commit the live performance to record, Margossian says she felt the band’s dynamic live is the strongest evocation of her compositions.
“People have commented after our performances that they could ’feel the energy’. We were approached and asked if we would be interested in playing at Studios 301, and we felt honoured to do it.”
Zela Margossian Quintet perform live at Studios 301 in Alexandria on November 16th as part of the Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival. To buy tickets, click the link below!