“I see jazz as an encompassing art form… mixed with any genre, it will remain dominant”

Pianist Tarek Yamani explains his thoughts on jazz

“I learned jazz by myself and it took me about 12 years of focus until I felt comfortable calling myself a true jazz musician,” admits Beirut-born jazz pianist Tarek Yamani, sitting at his home in New York.

“Learning an advanced and complex art form such as jazz by one’s self shapes one’s life in so many ways. You learn patience and discipline and you appreciate every piece of information your brain is absorbing because it’s not coming to you on a plate of gold, it’s coming through the hard way, which makes it much more valuable and impossible to forget.”

“Successful self-teaching builds self-confidence in an organic way and the best part of it, in my opinion, is that if you’re doing it right, you can develop your own voice much faster than if somebody else is finding answers for you.”

Yamani has been busy developing his own voice for the past few years, exploring the relationships between African American jazz and Arabic rhythms and melodies, while creating a fusion of his own. He calls it ‘Afro Tarab’. An exploration of the dialogue between two powerful and emotional musical genres, although he is yet to mix quarter tonal Arabic music with jazz.

I was so obsessive about rock and heavy metal that within a few years I could play a large repertoire of songs by Metallica, Megadeth, Pantera and many others. It was a few years later that I felt the need to go somewhere different

Tarek Yamani

In Lisan Al Tarab, his second album and the first to embrace ‘jazz conceptions in classical Arabic’, he chose Arabic pieces that were all based on scales that could be played on the piano. Amongst them Sayed Darwich’s Lahn Al Shayalin and Omar Zeenni’s Beirut Zahra Fi Gheir Awanha.

He is, however, experimenting with quarter tones and jazz and searching for ways to overcome issues of tonality, using acoustics as well as trial and error.

“I’ve always mixed Arabic music and jazz,” he says. “However, it wasn’t until Lisan Al Tarab that I decided to focus all of my experimentations into one single project that had a clear identity. An identity that reflected what I always wanted to do, which was to look for old beautiful folk songs and bring out the jazz inside.”

Afro Tarab, however, appears to stray more towards jazz than Arabic.

“I agree,” says Yamani, who won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Composer’s Competition for his composition Sama’i Yamani in 2010. “I see jazz as an encompassing art form that when it is mixed with any other genre, it will still be the most dominant.”

“In music, triplets are more dominant than duplets so when we mix African-based music (such as jazz) with any duplet-based music, the resulting hybrid will most likely sound stronger on the dominant parent side.”

Tarek Yamani
In Lisan Al Tarab, his second album, he chose Arabic pieces based on scales that could be played on the piano

Yamani’s first connection with Dubai was in 2013, when he performed his piano solo project at The Fridge alongside Dubai-based bass player Elie Afif. He performed there twice that year, following up with Lisan Al Tarab’s album launch at Jazz@Pizza Express in August last year.

He has lived in New York since 2011, although he was born in Beirut in 1980 and originally studied at the Lebanese National Conservatory before dropping out and experimenting with the sounds of heavy metal.

“When I think about this today, I feel that I must have had a natural tendency to learn music the unconventional way and I left the piano and taught myself to play the guitar and compose,” says Yamani, who recently finished scoring the music for his wife Darine Hotait’s film I Say Dust, which is expected to embark on the film festival circuit later this year.

“I was so obsessive about rock and heavy metal that within a few years I could play a large repertoire of songs by Metallica, Megadeth, Pantera and many others. It was a few years later that I felt the need to go somewhere different.”

“That could have been the need to improvise, and that’s how the first time I heard jazz something enormous changed in me and I knew that this was the absolute way to go. Jazz is what brought me back to the piano.”

When I ask him why, his response is predictably esoteric.

“Because jazz imitates life. It is unpredictable and encompassing, it follows complex patterns and its strict rules can be bent once really understood. Jazz is a conversation on a higher channel.”