Sunday, February 12, 2017

Talking to New York-based Israeli pianist, composer and educator Guy Mintus

Photo: Maxim Reider

On February 2nd 2017, I met with Guy Mintus at the Dan Eilat Hotel, where he was one of the artists performing at the Eilat Chamber Music Festival. Born in Israel, the pianist, composer and educator today resides in New York, where he is active on the jazz-, world music- and contemporary music scenes. Guy Mintus has performed throughout Europe, North America and the Middle East. As a composer, he has won awards and commissions from such organizations as the American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers, Downbeat Magazine, the American Composers Orchestra and the Imani Winds Ensemble and has shared the stage with master musicians from Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, Morocco, Spain, India, Cuba and Mali. His recordings include a debut album with the Offlines Project, a duo Guy leads with Israeli-Turkish percussionist/oud player Yinon Muallem (The Offlines Project performed at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage on International Jazz Day, April 30th 2016); also, a live solo album “The Mediterranean Piano”.

PH: You are a classical musician, a jazz pianist, you sing, play the melodica, you compose and you teach. How do you define yourself?

Guy Mintus: Thank you for the question. I first of all define myself as a human being and, only after that, as a musician. As a musician I am a pianist and composer and I also play some melodica and sing. You are right – I am active, but I don’t rush into defining myself as a “jazz musician” or a “classical musician”. What is jazz? What is classical? These are funny terms. I know they are necessary for marketing or categorizing and selling things to be “displayed on the shelf”.

PH: What are the main influences in your music-making?

GM: I draw inspiration from different worlds of music, not only classical, not only jazz; also from different types of world music – it could be from Turkey, Greece, Spain, Morocco, it could be Arabic music, Indian music, Israeli music. These are all sources of inspiration for me. In my own music, when I compose or improvise, these different facets come together to form something that is organic, that has been built over time. Sometimes I compose for symphony orchestras. You could say that this is more “classical music”, but within it you will hear many jazz influences, improvisations on world music - of Turkish music, Middle Eastern stuff…so I don’t know if it is classical. I guess it is in the eyes of the beholder. The defining factor of my music is not necessarily what we call “genre”.  It is the feeling one has when hearing it., being in touch with it. I believe there is a thread running through all the music I make and that is the feeling you get from the music. It’s not about the masses. It’s about reaching and touching people. That is as far as I can define it.

PH: How did you make contact with the different kinds of oriental music?

GM: First of all, I grew up in Israel. It is a Middle Eastern country surrounded by Arab countries. Israel has many Jewish people whose roots are from Arab countries and Arabic people from different backgrounds. So, it has always been around me. Also, I am half Iraqi, a quarter Moroccan and a quarter Polish. This culture is in my blood, you could say. But the fact that you asked about that shows that it is still somewhat exceptional for a classical- or jazz pianist to really be building into those styles.

PH: But isn’t it a bit unusual?

GM: The reason it is unusual is just because of the history of how things have happened institutionally. You go to a music academy of classical music; thankfully, more and more of them now teach jazz but very few teach other non-European styles. There are more paths of music than those we are taught.

PH: So how did you study this music?

GM: I was very lucky to meet an incredible teacher – Harel Shachal. He got me into deep study of oriental music. He taught me the Turkish maqam (melodic system). That was my gateway. From then on I kept studying with him, I kept exploring and playing with musicians, I started travelling to Istanbul, performing and recording there. In New York, I met amazing Indian musicians playing classical Indian music and I have studied and performed with some of them. I am open to these things and would not avoid studying, say, Iranian music or that from Azerbaijan just because they are not taught at my school. And all these kinds of music are connected to each other. I enjoy experiencing and spreading that, also bringing these sounds here, to the Eilat Chamber Music Festival. They are also a part of what chamber music is.

PH: What was your early musical training?

GM: I started learning small keyboards when I was 10, playing all sorts of pop songs – Beatles, etc. But thanks to the Thelonious Monk’s piece “Round Midnight”, I started playing jazz. I only knew the piece from the printed music, but when I finally heard Monk’s version of it, it sparked the idea of trying to improvise myself. That was what got me onto the path of exploring jazz music, getting into the history of it and eventually going to New York, which is where I have been living for the last four and a half years. There I have colleagues with whom I have worked for a while. It is very nice to be a part of this kind of community.

PH: Did you take studies in New York?

GM: Yes. I was at the Manhattan School of Music for three years. Since my graduation, I have been very fortunate to be doing music full-time, earning my living performing concerts, whether in New York, around the USA or Canada, Europe, Israel or Turkey. I have been travelling a lot, of course, and also receiving some commissions from different ensembles that are more identified with the classical/chamber music sector; they have commissioned me to write because they want me to compose in my style, not in the style of Mozart or in the style of contemporary composers, whatever that is. 

PH: You also teach.

GM: Yes. I give workshops all around the world, mostly on improvisation. I also have a workshop I call “Meeting Points”; this is about opening people’s minds to different kinds of music.

PH: When you are performing, what are your thoughts? Do you feel you are in your own world or are you engaging with the audience?

GM: Both, I think. I am open to the audience. I listen to what energy I get from the audience; that is a kind of guide for me. It is give and take. You have to have something you want to express. It doesn’t always need to be something you can define in words. It’s an internal thing. You have to just feel it. I have to listen to what my purpose here is. You are there to give something, to pass it on. I try to do that every time I go on stage. The audience is effective. For example, the first time you heard me it was in Tel Aviv in front of many journalists. Journalists are naturally very impatient, but I picked up their energy. That makes me play in a certain way. And many of them came up to me later to say how much they enjoyed it. Then, in trumpeter Jens Lindemann’s concert here at the festival, people were surprised when I came up on stage; some were moved to tears when I played one little solo on the melodica. So it is different every time, even if you are playing the same repertoire, and that’s the fun of it.

PH: What are your future plans?

GM: To continue this way for the next years. I am very happy with what I am doing. I hope to compose more. There is something else I should talk about - I am in the process of starting my own music label – Mintus Music. That is because of the need artists have today to establish a “home” for our own works, especially with genres today not as clear-cut as they used to be. I am active on different scenes and I need this for my output as a whole to be put out there. It is mainly for recording my works, but it may mean at some later stage that I release someone else’s projects, this also relating to me as it will be my choice. But it is a personal label, my own venture.

PH: What is your latest recording?

GM: It’s called “A Home In-Between” and will come out this April on my new label. The pieces were performed by my trio – the Guy Mintus Trio - the other members being Israeli bassist Tamir Shmerling and Dutch drummer Philippe Lemm, both living in New York. We three have worked together for a while. So, when we went into the studio, the album just “happened”. It was magic.

PH: Do you come from a musical family?

GM: Not of professional musicians. Not my immediate family. Both my parents are very musical but they don’t play instruments. They are lawyers. I do have some distant relatives who play very well.

PH: When it is not music, what interests you?

GM: Life, food, meeting people, travelling the world, seeing places, my family.

PH: Guy Mintus, many thanks for your time. And I so enjoyed your performance.

Playing the melodica (photo: Maxim Reider)

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