Up on the top floor of Behrooz Mihankhah’s house, music seems to effortlessly flow from the Iran-born, Halifax-based composer’s fingertips through his Korg SV1, a very heavy electric keyboard and the main tool in his box of many. Between thoughts or during a quick photoshoot or just to reveal how he came to his upbeat arrangement of Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus,” he plays as if the piano is more an extension of him than a separate thing. But it’s not the first instrument he really focused on. That was guitar, in high school in India, where he eventually started performing professionally. Then, he went to The Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music.
“They had faculty from Berklee and the Manhattan School of Music,” Mihankhah says. “The level of musicianship was totally different. I went there first for voice but then I changed my mind to just do guitar because I wanted to be more independent as a musician. But then there were just too many guitar students. And the piano studio had only like, three students there. So I was like, ‘I can get way more attention from the teacher here.’ And, you know, put more time in. And I just switched to piano.”
The switch has clearly paid off. Mihankhah pursued more education at Nova Scotia Community College and St. Francis Xavier University, completing a degree in jazz studies. He just released his debut album, Lydium, last month. On the record, Mihankhah blends musical traditions from the Middle East with Western and modern influences, using both original songs and interpretations of jazz standards from composers Erik Satie, John Coltrane, and Joe Henderson. The impressionistic results—for which he wrote the parts for all of the instruments we hear—are frequently transcendent. Mihankhah says there wasn’t a moment when he decided to become a composer, though—it was something that happened organically.
“I think it’s just listening to music a lot,” he says. “I was obsessed with this composer Avishai Cohen. He’s a bass player. I would listen to his music on repeat. He has a huge influence on my music as well, but I don’t know—there are just some things that stand out to me in music and I’m like, ‘I want to investigate that further.’ Then the more I listen to it, the more internalized it becomes, and then it shows up in my writing. If you are interested in something, and it’s something that you live for, it just ends up happening for you. You just follow through. So I don’t know exactly how I’d go about explaining how I started doing it, but it was something I was so interested in that I sought after and, you know, gathered the skills required. I’m still a student. I’m still trying to learn different techniques for composition.”
When you first started with keys, what did you learn on?
In that school, it was a Kawai upright piano that I practiced on mostly. And honestly, I love pianos—acoustic, grands, all types of them. If I had a choice to play a piano or an electric piano, I would always go for the piano. And the thing that’s interesting on piano is how each of them is so different. Each of them has its own character and they affect your playing as well. So just having had a chance to spend time with a piano, when I was a little bit older—it wasn’t something that I was forced into. I was really, really genuinely interested and I had all the time to do it. And you know, that created that relationship between me and the instrument.
Was there anything about that specific Kawai that led you in a certain direction?
Honestly, it’s been a long time since then. So I don’t have any specific thing to say about that piano, but I remember there was a time where I didn’t play for a week or so, and then when I came back to the piano and just placed my hands on the keys, just felt the keys—they feel so nice. It still happens to me sometimes when I’ve been on a trip or something, and I come back home and back to the keyboard, and I’m like, ‘Oh my god.’ It just feels so good, the weighted keys, the heaviness of the keys.
What drew you to the Korg SV1?
It’s amazing. It’s my first choice for sure. Because it has, first of all, an amazing piano sample. It even has the sound of the pedal of the piano, when you lift and press down your foot. So it’s very natural. You have so much control. When you’re playing the electric piano, first of all, on the left side, you get started with EQ right off the bat. So you have your EQ right here. And then it’s got some effects here and if you want to get funky *he plays something funky* there’s tremolo, and you know, it’s got boosts, a compressor. Then you come to this side and you can control these. And it’s all got a vintage look, right? It’s all knobs there. It’s just so accessible. And then on the other side, you’ve got the tube amp in there. The electric piano sounds are definitely the best on this one. And then after that, it’s the piano. I don’t use many other sounds on it, because I feel like it was meant for these things.
You used a gorgeous Steinway & Sons grand piano at The Music Room to record the album. Obviously, different situations call for different instruments, so what are the limitations of the Korg?
I got the 77 key version. It’s less than 88, so it’s not as big. I tend to perform on an actual piano, and sometimes [with the Korg] I’m missing some keys. But it’s fine. Also, it’s really heavy. I don’t ever look forward to carrying this to a gig. But at the same time, it gives me good sound. I like having my own monitoring, too. I have a stereo amp as well. So I just do stereo sound when I’m playing this. I put the stereo sound into my amp, and I have the unused amp as my own monitoring and then give the sound person an out from my own amp. So I have access to my own monitoring. But honestly, I don’t really have anything bad to say about this keyboard.
What kind of concepts are you interested in exploring in your composing and how does this piano allow you to do that?
I’m generally interested in fusing different musical traditions, especially things that are based on where I’m from—especially music and musical traditions that are based In Iran, and around that area in the Middle East, Azerbaijan, Armenia. Basically bringing that and presenting it in a new context, in a modern context where it sounds familiar to a listener from the Middle East, while also sounding familiar to someone who’s from here. And it is produced and created by musicians locally here in Nova Scotia. I don’t have anything specific to say about how this particular instrument’s gonna help me with that. But it is my instrument, so it’s going to be there the whole time.
What are the challenges in creating that fusion?
The instrument that we used is the tar. I have one of the siblings of that instrument here. It’s called the sitar. As you can see, the fretboard is microtonal. So the scales are divided that way. That’s why in Persian music we don’t play as much harmony, we play melodic—harmony doesn’t quite work because something is a little bit flat. The challenge of incorporating that music into this is essentially having to change the tuning of this and also access to musicians who are well-versed in the instrument. In Nova Scotia, there’s only one person that plays the tar that I can work with and understands the type of music that we like to play. His name is Mohammad Sahraei. We are also in this other group together called Open Borders, and we do all sorts of Persian fusion and international music with that group as well. So—getting him to figure out the tuning. Because on the other tune we play, “Black Narcissus,” he had to use a completely different instrument because the tuning was so different. So you have to figure out a whole new way of playing it.
How does that finished product, the fusion of these two separate things, make you feel? What does it mean to you?
So, the way I learn jazz standards, especially something that’s more challenging to me, is by taking it out of its original context. I play it in a different way that works for me and is accessible to me first to try and understand the harmony. And sometimes it involves putting a different kind of rhythm to it. So with “Black Narcissus” by Joe Henderson, I put a Persian dance rhythm on it. And the purpose of it is not to just to mess with these tunes and make them different or whatever. I’m still trying to make it retain its original essence, and show the care for the music itself and make sure beauty exists in it. And again, as I said, present them in a way that is familiar to an Iranian listener, while retaining this Western harmonic influence.
How do you make sure you’re doing that—respecting the original, caring for the music?
I kind of trust my instincts. If something sounds good to me and to the community of musicians I’m performing it with, it sounds good. People are pretty honest, the other musicians as well. And I feel like I have a decent enough ear to tell if something is not working, or something just doesn’t sound right. I feel like it is a pretty natural thing for me. And again, I don’t write music in a way… I don’t look at it from outside, and say, ‘Okay, I’m gonna do this, and then just try and make it work.’ The music comes first. It usually stems, obviously, from the improvisation or an idea, and then we try and make it happen, and then it evolves into what it is. That organic process helps maintain the essence of the original.
How have your travels affected your music and composition?
Migration is definitely a path that has made me very resilient and adaptive to different situations, especially different social contexts and being able to read people and connect with community. That has allowed me to be more receptive to people and their energy and all sorts of things. Music, for me, is very much a community-driven thing. And so that’s allowed me to connect with all these different groups of people who are making music in Halifax. The Halifax music community is, of course, super supportive and really wonderful. I’m so glad that I ended up here, you know, as opposed to anywhere else. So I would say in that way—in a social way, that’s how it’s affected my music. And also, going through these different places and being exposed to different music has had a huge influence on me as well.
Most of the people I know in my life, I’ve connected to them in one way or another because of music.