Conversations with a Renaissance Man - An Interview with Jazz Phenom Emrah Kotan
World-class musician. Visionary composer. Respected educator. Gifted actor. If one possessed just one of any of these titles, theirs would be a distinguished, remarkable life. Atlanta jazz phenom Emrah Kotan can claim all of them and more. A Turkish immigrant whose immense and abiding passion for music has carried him across the globe, instilled in him – indelibly – the shared values that lie at the heart of numerous world cultures, and lent him a unique perspective on life marked by the utmost grace and humility, Emrah is a fascinating human being, to say the least. His presence lights up any room he walks into, and it was an absolute pleasure to sit down for an interview with the man himself following his performance at the Red Light Café on Friday, January 25th, which marked the start of the inaugural Atlanta Jazz International Sounds Series.
Emrah, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me tonight. For those who might be unaware, would you mind sharing a bit of your story – where you grew up, how you got into music, what brought you to the States, and so on?
I grew up in Turkey and attended conservatory there. I studied classical music and orchestral percussion. After I graduated, I decided that I wanted to pursue jazz and world music. So I learned English – that came first – and then I came to the US, and started my masters studies at Georgia State University. I graduated from there in 2003 and began to teach percussion throughout the Atlanta area. I’ve performed both nationally and internationally and appeared on TV and radio… I’ve toured with India.Arie and Grammy and Emmy winner Jennifer Holliday. The band and I have done a lot of festivals. I’ve performed with Gary Motley. He’s the head of Emory’s jazz department, and I play with his band, too. Lots of Brazillian groups, salsa groups, flamenco groups…lots of world music…
You’ve also worked with Daniel Hardin, am I right?
Yes, I’ve played with Daniel, too. We just did a concert not too long ago.
He’s a fantastic player and songwriter.
Very talented, yes.
What would you say are the influences and inspirations that have had the greatest impact on you as an artist?
Well, definitely classical music. That was the first thing – my first main source of inspiration, other than traditional Turkish music. Over the years I developed an ear and love for jazz, and of course blues and other American music.
As a player, I enjoy all the usual guys – Vinnie Colaiuta is a favorite, Steve Gadd, Dave Weckl…Tony Williams was huge for me, too. Lots of people like that.
It’s rare to come across a player and composer of your caliber. What’s your process like when you write?
I hear rhythms and melodies, first. When something beautiful hits a certain spot in my brain, it makes me hear what I would want to write. Sometimes, it will just come when I’m driving, or sitting down at the piano – I play guitar and bass, too, but mostly drums and piano – and the more I play and experiment, the more I hear.
How much freedom to you like to allow the players who perform your compositions?
Good question. I like my musicians to be themselves. The band I have now, for instance, adds so much to the music. There are certain things that must be the same and that I want a certain way, of course. But within the overall structure, I like for there to be room for musicians to express themselves.
Your work is often heavily syncopated and intricate, but there’s a graceful ebb and flow to it. What do you attribute that quality to?
A lot of it comes from how the music is performed. I do write with a lot of syncopation, but there’s also a lot of melody, and as a drummer, I try to support the melody. Just because something is syncopated doesn’t mean you have to play it stiffly. I like to make things more interesting.
You released your album, The New Anatolian Experience in 2013. What was the driving idea behind that record? How did it come about?
The driving idea was that my wife asked me to. [laughs] She’s my biggest inspiration other than God – the greatest human influence in my life. It was her that encouraged me to make the album happen and combine so many different kinds of music.
Do you have plans for a follow up?
Yes. I definitely do. God willing, I plan to write this year, and record and release next year.
Now, in addition to performing and composing, you also teach, correct?
Yes, I do. I direct the jazz and world percussion ensembles at Agnes Scott College. I also teach applied percussion there.
And somewhat recently, you’ve begun acting, too.
How did you get into that?
I always wanted to, even before coming to the US, believe it or not. All I can really say is that God made it happen. One day I got an email from someone looking to cast a Turkish-looking guy for a TV show. I auditioned, and got the call for ‘MacGyver’. That’s how it started. And I’ve been getting more into it – more encouraged. It’s a different kind of art for me, and I have a good time doing it.
I think it’s fair to say that you’re quite the renaissance man. Are there any other creative ventures in the near future? Maybe the visual arts?
I actually used to paint. Not anymore, but I used to. And I was pretty decent I suppose.
[laughs] No, I have no idea about that. It’s not me. I can’t.
Maybe a talk show?
Hey, why not? I’m open to it. I might make a good host. [laughs]
I’ll wrap up this interview up with the same question I like to end every interview with: is there anything about you and your music that you want GLS readers to know about?
I think the most important thing is that my biggest inspiration is God – I’m a Muslim, so I call Him “Allah” – and I’m just thankful that He’s given me the opportunity to perform and make people happy. My kids and wife are also such a big part of my life, and they inspire me. And I’m inspired by all the beauty I see. Sometimes it’s just seeing someone smile. Those are all my most important influences.
Fantastic. Well Emrah, thanks again for your time. Outstanding show tonight. I hope to see you again soon.
You’re very welcome. Thanks for coming!
Photo credit: Just A Fan Photography