PREVIEW/INTERVIEW: Romanian pianist Sorin Zlat (new commission From the Playing Card Factory, Kings Place, 10th October)

Sorin Zlat

Virtuoso pianist Sorin Zlat returns to London this autumn for a special concert inspired by French poets Rimbaud and Verlaine, including a new work commissioned by the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation. Emerging from the new crop of Romanian jazz stars to make their presence felt beyond their country’s borders, Zlat is picking up new admirers wherever he plays, and the concert will be his highest profile date so far in the UK. Stephen Graham interviewed him:

It doesn’t take much deep thinking to realise how global a music jazz is and has become over the last half century. Nowadays it seems foolish to think of the music in terms of nationality and even its origins in early 20th century New Orleans seem cut off from much of the music produced today.

In far-flung Romania, the latest star in the making is the multi-prize winning pianist Sorin Zlat. He is from a family of musicians:  his grandfather was a violinist and conductor attached to the Romanian National Folkloric Ensemble and his father is a professional jazz saxophonist. Sorin took up the violin and clarinet early on, and while at the George Enescu University of Arts studied classical clarinet.

Zlat’s jazz interests developed and he began to be inspired by the music of Thelonious Monk, Keith Jarrett and Oscar Peterson and switching to piano he studied the instrument at masters level.

After this relatively late start he caught up on lost time and began picking up jazz piano competition prizes in Europe, both in his homeland of Romania as well as in Lithuania, France and Belgium and also in the States. He has performed in festivals including the Jacksonville and Montreux festivals, reaching the 2014 final of the Parmigiani Montreux Jazz Piano International Competition in Switzerland and the Nottingham Jazz Piano Competition in the United Kingdom.

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In October Sorin returns to the UK for a Kings Place show in London, performing a new work commissioned by the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation. The new music is inspired by Rimbaud and Verlaine who spent some tempestuous days in Camden, and also by the experience of immigrants coming to a big metropolis. Jazz From the Playing Card Factory, the title of the show refers to Chas & Goodall, the giant playing card factory which in 1873 stood a few doors up from the poets’ house at No 8 Royal College Street.

“The suite of jazz pieces that will be premiered this autumn in London has been inspired by the property at No 8 Royal College Street and the time spent in Camden by the French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine,” Zlat says.

The Goodall playing card factory was in Camden from 1820-1922
(photo from WOPC) 

“Rimbaud was known for being a libertine and a restless soul that lived and thought differently for his time and age,” says Zlat. “Being yourself, being free to express who you truly are as an individual, are themes that will be found in the pieces that we will be showcasing. Camden town itself, with its rich history that started around the early development of the railways and having as a backdrop the Chas & Goodall Playing Card Factory, was an inspiration for my work. At one time, that part of Camden was home to 12 factories, out of which four were piano factories, situated around Rimbaud and Verlaine’s house. It was from those vibrant sounds, the chaotic, but yet urban landscape of this city, with its thousands of people going to work each day, that I drew inspiration from.

Immigration is another theme that will be represented in my works for this commission. Like the poets that ran to London to gain freedom from oppression, many immigrants continue to come to London to seize the opportunity to make a better life for themselves. That always comes at the price of leaving loved ones behind, emotional turmoil, loss, but which for many ends up turning into happiness, prosperity, and personal growth.”

Zlat says he “took all these feelings and bottled them up to be poured for the audience in yet another one of my compositions. This suite of jazz pieces will take the listeners through a musical journey filled with a multitude of sounds and emotions: from the upbeat, chaotic, urban pavement sounds of Camden town, to the soothing sounds of the Romanian doinas, to the colourful, innovative sounds inspired by the beautiful iconography of the playing cards.”

Growing up in a musical family, Zlat felt it was the natural path for him, too, to become a musician: “From the moment I was born, I was surrounded by music every day. My maternal grandfather was a renowned violinist, my father is a professional saxophone player, my uncle is a piano player, so there was not a day in our household without music being played. Music has been an integral part of my life since day one, so I knew early on that my life will be dedicated to it. At the age of 7, I started my studies at the School of Arts in my hometown, pursued and obtained a degree in classical clarinet in 2009, and concluded them with a master’s degree in piano jazz in 2011. Music is truly who I am and I cannot imagine my life without it.”

Jazz began to appeal to him deeply as his musical interests expanded: “While pursuing the degree in classical clarinet, I started to feel constrained creatively by the monophonic sound of the clarinet. I have always been attracted by instrumental diversities, often times unwinding big orchestra arrangements in my head . So I turned my attention to studying piano as its polyphonic sounds allowed me to explore new vistas of musical expression. As I was studying the various techniques and music genres, I fell in love with jazz in particular because unlike any other music genre, jazz has the unique characteristic of improvisation. If we look at the academic definition of jazz, jazz would be a genre of American music that originated in New Orleans circa 1900, characterised by a strong, prominent meter, improvisation, distinctive tone, colours, and performance techniques, and dotted or syncopated rhythmic patterns. But jazz is absolutely so much more than that. It is a language layered with experience and life profoundly lived, it is pure personal emotion. Jazz does not come with step by step instructions and it is not confined to the conformity of a music sheet, but it rather starts with the creative idea that is born in the heart of the artist, infused with passion, and moulded into music. It draws from human emotions and personal life experiences, continuously opening new levels of artistic expression.”

Most specifically he says his musical style is rooted in bebop and cool jazz. “Bebop emerged in the 1940s, shifting jazz from danceable popular music toward a more challenging ‘musician’s music’ which was played at faster tempos and used more chord-based improvisation. Cool jazz developed around the end of the 1940s, introducing calmer, smoother sounds and long, linear melodic lines. A lot of my work pays tribute to the jazz greats such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans which influenced my development as an artist. But the beauty of jazz is that it is such a flexible music style that you can continuously develop oneself and your artistic creations, so when I compose I now draw from different national, regional, and local musical cultures. Many of my recent compositions have influences from the Latin, flamenco, and classical music styles combined with jazz.”

Last year Zlat released his very personal album Endurance. “The album Endurance holds a very special place in my heart. The inspiration for this project came to me through much emotional turmoil, at a time that my sister was diagnosed with cancer. The song ‘Roxane,’ which is dedicated to her, was the foundation on which the album was built. It is an album centred on the power of love and family that many of us rely on to withstand life’s hardships. With influences from the Latin, flamenco, and classical music styles combined with jazz, each song is meant to take the audience through the emotions brought on by loss, pain, suffering, but also hope, faith, love, and joy. Besides my personal compositions, the album also contains renowned jazz standards from the jazz greats such as John Coltrane, Victor Young, and Michel Legrand, all of which I re-orchestrated to reveal new vistas of musical expression.”

But jazz back in his homeland of Romania struggles, Zlat says. “We have wonderful artists here and great educational institutions with very strong jazz programmes that produced very talented musicians, but the public attendance has deteriorated a lot over the recent years. It is a style of music that, sadly, is underappreciated and not promoted anymore. My father has been my first source of inspiration. He is a professional jazz saxophone player and he has been and continues to be my mentor. From there, I drew all my inspiration from the American jazz musicians.”

His success in international competitions has helped develop his career more than he could possibly have imagined. “With jazz not being promoted in my home country, my main launching ramp has been my participation in national and international competitions. It was truly the only way to help build my profile and launch a career. My success in these competitions led to a very fortunate and much appreciated collaboration with the Romanian Cultural Institute who have been sponsoring me for the past years, allowing me to play my music in most of the major European and North American cities. It is a collaboration that I am very grateful for. I have been blessed with the support of a family that believes in what I do and works tirelessly to help me continue to play my music. My older sister, with the support of the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York, has just finished arranging a tour in the United States which will start this September 12th. I am very grateful for all the people in my life that through their acts of unconditional love and support allow me to follow my heart and do what I love. The life of an artist, and I know I speak for many of my peers, is not an easy one, but I simply I cannot imagine it without music in it.”

After this project Zlat has an array of plans: “My next project will be a new recording. It will contain original compositions for a trio formula, but I am also going to introduce a string section, which will highly elevate the musical experience. It will also contain compositions inspired by major movie soundtracks re-orchestrated for jazz. I am very passionate about film music and this CD will be an expression of my love for that genre.’ (pp)

Jazz From the Playing Card Factory featuring the music of Sorin Zlat and his quartet takes place at Kings Place in London on 10th October.

LINKS: Kings Place Bookings
Sorin Zlat’s website
Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation website

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