Omid Shayan: ‘Creation is hard and it hurts, but the result can be life-changing’

SHAYAN’s music is a strange creature; it is a massive, gigantic beast which – despite its density and mass – moves swiftly and smoothly through the city, slowly but firmly; and as it goes, it devours all sorts of elements and sounds, from funk and jazz to classical to rock to Iranian traditional music. As the band prepares to launch their debut album, Sounds from Cross Street,at Melbourne’s Jazz Lab, there’s nobody better to talk about it than its leader, saxophonist Omid Shayan.


What would you say to a stranger on the street to make them come to your album launch?

I would say that they should come to hear original Australian music that is inspired by different genres; moving between big-band jazz to Iranian folk songs to Contemporary Classical compositions to ’90s rock. Expect to hear some of the most creative and exciting musicians in town playing for you as you sit in one of the great Australian music venues. For my part, I have no expectations from you as a listener. In this beautiful city, there are so many options for a night out and I am happy that you decided to come to this album launch. I hope you enjoy what we have created.

Do you really have no expectations from the audience?

Actually, I just thought of one. Don’t get so drunk that you think you can get up on stage mid-performance and play the drums. I saw that happen at a gig once, and it was not fun to watch.

How would you describe your music?

SHAYAN is an aural representation of my life and experiences as an Iranian-Australian migrant growing up in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne.

My first musical memories are of my parents playing and dancing to traditional Persian classical and folk music in the house. In my teenage years, I rebelled from my Iranian heritage and listened only to Top-40 pop and jazz. Then came the grunge era before I finally became comfortable once again with who I was.

In a sense, I ’embraced the hyphen’ of being an Iranian-Australian and accepted that it’s ok to be both.

When composing for this group, I am constantly reaching back to these memories, searching for moments or periods of my life that affected me in some way, and trying to sprinkle some of those feelings into each composition.

What has changed since your EP release?

SHAYAN came about in 2014 after I won first place after composing a large ensemble work for the Darebin Music Festival Composition Competition. The prize included one full day of recording and another day of mixing and mastering. The problem was I now had this recording opportunity but no music, no band and a deadline make use of the prize. The group was formed with the aim of recording first and afterwards performing live, not the other way around. This was a backwards approach for me, but I feel that the emphasis on recording created an EP that I’m quite happy with.

SHAYAN has now been together for almost five years, and has had time to experiment with different concepts and sounds. I feel the band is coming into its own. I’ve always loved the sound of a horn section, so the group was expanded to become a seven-piece, allowing for more harmonic and rhythmic possibilities. I decided to self-fund the project and put more time into composing, arranging and recording for the album. We also had the luxury of recording over two sessions at the Cross Street Music Hall in Brunswick, hence the name of the album. The result is – in my opinion – a more self-assured and adventurous body of work.

How did you choose your band members?

SHAYAN consists of Eugene Ball (Trumpet), Cheryl Durongpisitkul (Alto Sax), Scott van Gemert (trombone), Matthew Roche (guitar), Costa Hagi (Bass) and Alexandra Roper (Drums).

With any band I put together I look for people who are excellent musicians but, more importantly, good people. For me, music is about connection, both between the members on the stage and the people in the audience. Technically, one can be the greatest player alive but if trust and connection is lacking, the music suffers.

All the members of this band are great on their instruments and they are generous, warm-hearted, wonderful people who go out of their way to serve the music. I love these guys and I am in awe of all of them. I remember looking at the group during the recording session and pinching myself.

What has your trajectory in music been so far?

I attended a masterclass with Wadada Leo Smith who summed it up perfectly. In nature, nothing is created without suffering. Whether it be a seed trying to grow or a mother giving birth, creation is hard and it hurts. But the result can be life-changing. My musical journey has been a grind with some moments of exhilaration, moments of self-doubt, moments of peace and moments of rage. But the movement has always been forward and I wouldn’t trade this journey for anything.

What has been the most significant highlight?

There have been some highlights, but to date my favourite moment was the first time SHAYAN played as a seven-piece. It wasn’t about playing a festival, or the people in the crowd, but about hearing the compositions played live for the first time by these incredible players. There is something so special about hearing the dots on the page turn into actual music, especially when it is played by great musicians. It is something I’ll never forget.

Who are your heroes?

I love the old masters of the tenor saxophone but the moment I realised I wanted to be a musician was the night I heard Julien Wilson play at the Cape Lounge on Brunswick Street. His sound, technique and ideas made my hair stand on end and it still does when I hear him play today, almost twenty years later. The other musician who constantly blows me away is Harry James Angus. He is a consummate musician who never rests. Some of his tunes make me want to dance on tables, others move me to tears. It is as if he is incapable of creating something mediocre.

If you could get any artist in the world to sit in with your band, who would that be?

I can’t go past Harry Angus. If I could write a song good enough for him to sing, I would die a happy man.

What is your greatest aspiration?

To take the band to tour both locally and internationally.

To be a respected member of the music community, playing regularly with my idols and positively contributing to the Australian Jazz scene.

To keep growing as a musician and as a composer.

How did you get into jazz?

When I was 14, I took music as an elective subject at High School. Effectively, it was a choice between music and pottery and I flipped a coin to decide. Most of the subject focused on classical music but for a few weeks the topic turned to jazz. One day Mr Falloon put on a recording of Coltrane playing ‘My Favourite Things’ and I remember my jaw dropping to the floor. I couldn’t understand what he was doing but there was something in the music I couldn’t get it out of my head. I wanted to know more.

What does jazz mean to you?

For me, Jazz means community. Jazz is like-minded people coming together to experiment, share ideas and, for a moment in time, to create something new. Sometimes this creation is beautiful, sometimes it is challenging and sometimes it is ugly. But when it is done well it can touch people in a way that few other things can; just like it did to me that night I heard Julien Wilson play.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

‘The Light of the Moon’ – Harry James Angus

I cry almost every time I hear this. How does he do it?

SHAYAN launch Sounds from Cross Street at the Jazz Lab on Thursday 12 December