Zela Margossian: ‘Music really does unify people’

The fusion of jazz and ‘ethnic’ music might not be something new – in fact, it has been part of the jazz fabric from the start – however there is something fresh and completely original in the way pianist Zela Margossian blends the music of her culture with jazz and classical. When you listen to her music, you can identify each element, but you never question its presence, as all pieces come together in a way that feels natural, like this is the way it was always meant to be. Born in Beirut and based in Sydney, the pianist shares her journey as a classically trained Armenian musician who traveled from Lebanon to Armenia to Australia, where she created her own version of ‘ethno-jazz’ -perfectly demonstrated in her debut album, Transition.

What is the Transition backstory?

Up until I moved to Australia, ten years ago, I used to perform classical music. From an early age in, I started learning piano and was very serious on becoming a classical pianist. At least, that’s the direction where I was being guided towards by my mentors and parents. I moved to Armenia from Beirut to further my studies in classical performance at the Yerevan State Conservatorium and that is where I was exposed to the Armenian ethno-jazz music in the local venues and that is when I realised how passionately I loved the music, as I always felt that I wasn’t 100 per cent comfortable with only performing classical music and to be honest, I always had the feeling that there was something missing in my life as a musician. I think the reason I loved it so much is because I have always felt more in touch with Armenian folk music and I learned more in depth about it in Armenia during my studies there; witnessing a fusion between jazz and folk was the greatest music to my ears.

Having a demanding repertoire to master in my course of study at the Con in Yerevan made it impossible for me to pursue jazz seriously as I didn’t have enough time and I always thought it was already too late to learn something new. Being a perfectionist, it was hard for me to dedicate less time to my classical studies.

Things changed when I moved to Australia. The first four years were very hard as I was indecisive. I knew deep inside that I didn’t want to perform classical anymore, but at the same time I didn’t want to stop, as there was this huge void that I wanted to fill. Finally, after many years, I took the first baby step and I started taking lessons in jazz harmony. For me, it felt like I was starting from scratch, but the joy I felt through learning what I loved and the discoveries I made along the way was very gratifying.

Participating in SIMA’s Young Women’s Jazz Workshop twice was an important stepping stone for me as my mentors guidance, encouragement and support gave me the strength to move forward and audition at the Sydney Conservatorium. Getting accepted at the Con was another huge learning curve for me. Once again, I found mentors there who were and still are nurturing and caring; I still study at the Con part-time due to work responsibilities. I also learn a lot through interacting with the talented students and meeting interesting people along the way.

Throughout these past years, I was very fortunate to work with amazing musicians, some of whom were musically very compatible with me and gradually, my quintet was formed and I consider myself very lucky to have met the members of my band, whom I deeply respect both as musicians and as friends.

Why did you choose this particular title for your album?

The title Transition refers to my transition from being a classical performer to what I perform now, which is very hard for me to put a label on. It was indeed a transition for me as I was completely transformed as a musician.

What was the first tune you recorded?

The first tune that I wrote which found its way in the album was ‘The Child in Me’. I presented it at concert practice, which is a requirement at the Con; presenting a set of tunes to an audience. The tune is based on two Armenian folk melodies, which I used to sing when I was very young.

I was surprised how great the reaction was from the jazz students who were in the audience and also from the teachers and mentors. I must say that Judy Bailey, who was then my mentor, encouraged me to include my own music in the set and her support played a big role in making me feel confident.

The first tunes we recorded on the album were ‘The Child in Me’ and ‘Aleeq’ (Waves), two years ago, as Metin Yilmaz, percussionist Adem Yilmaz’s brother, was still in Sydney back then and he plays the kaval on those two tracks. After he left Sydney, Stuart Vandegraaff (sax, clarinet) joined the band.

How would you describe the album – and your music in general- to someone not familiar with it?

As I mentioned before, it is very hard for me to put a label to my music as I think its sort of a hybrid of genres. Coming from a classical background, I know that there is the classical influence in there, there’s the folk element coming from my cultural background – both as an Armenian and Lebanese – and of course there’s also the jazz influence, the harmonies, the improvisations and the approach in the composition process.

How did you develop your sound?

It is very hard for me to consider myself a composer, as I am not a composer by profession. My way of composing is very organic. I am very much driven by rhythm and most of the time, I have the overall conception in my head and I have learnt to trust my instincts and not worry about ‘rules’ so much as I was when I used to study classical music.

How does your music fit in the Australian jazz ecosystem?

I think Australia being a multicultural country, it is very much open to embracing music from other cultures and my music, being a hybrid of genres, is being appreciated and I am very grateful for that.

How has your cultural and ethnic background influenced your approach to music?

I have a very strong connection to my Armenian culture and background as I was raised with a very strong Armenian identity, despite the fact that I was born and raised in Beirut. Studying and living in Armenia for many years also had a great influence on me in terms of connecting more deeply with my roots and specifically the in-depth study of the Armenian music and its origins.

I think my main influence in my music is my Armenian culture. I don’t deliberately write music which is Armenian but I feel that the motifs and ideas make their way in there organically.

How has your journey in music been so far?

My journey in music has certainly been rewarding and very interesting. The greatest challenge that I had to face was accepting the fact that I had to start from scratch again, learning the jazz harmony, the way it functions, the improvisational approach… these were all very challenging for me, as the mindset is completely different in the classical world. You are trained differently and to me, it always felt like I was in a box and getting slightly outside of that box was not acceptable. The challenge is not over yet, I am still in that challenge, learning and discovering new things. There’s still a long way to go for me, but I am looking forward to it as each step forward is giving me great joy.

What is the most important thing that you have discovered about yourself through music?

The most important thing that I have discovered about music is that it really does unify people and heals wounds.

Who are your heroes?

My hero is anyone who gets up and soldiers on after a stumbling fall and one who never thinks it’s too late to do anything.

How did you get into jazz?

I got into jazz after I fell in love with the ethno-jazz I was exposed to in Armenia and I wanted to find the means to achieve creating music similar to it in my own way. Jazz to me is freedom and a medium for creative expression.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

‘Markos and Markos’ by Tigran Hamasyan


Zela Margossian presents Transition at the Jazz Lab in Melbourne, on Friday 15 March



UPDATE: See the Zela Margossian Quintet perform at the Sydney International Womens Jazz Festival on Saturday 16 November