Drummer’s pianist Mikan Zlatkovich.
  • Drummer’s pianist Mikan Zlatkovich.
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“You know what a drummer once told me? That I’m a drummer’s pianist,” says Mikan Zlatkovich. “Meaning that I’m percussive. The piano has to keep the time as well.”

We meet in a café in La Mesa. We order cappuccinos. He orders desserts for each of us. “My word is worth nothing when it comes to sweets,” he says.

Zlatkovich, 49, was born in Kosovo. “I started playing piano when I was seven. I tried guitar, but I couldn’t take that.” At the age of 20 he moved to Belgrade. Eight years later he moved to New York, before settling in San Diego. He lives in University City, “on the La Jolla borderline, by the fabulous Mormon Temple.”

Mikan Zlatkovich is a modern jazz pianist. “And I occasionally do acoustic R&B — whatever that is.” His credits include gigs with Tony Scott, Clifford Jordan, Chet Baker, Ernie Wilkins, Anthony Wilson, Willie Jones III, and Charles McPherson. He counts ten records as a sideman and has released four of his own recordings as band leader. He starts the interview with a question of his own:

Zlatkovich: “What are you listening to when you listen to jazz?”

Dave Good: “Mostly saxophone jazz. Straight ahead, hard bop. I’m an alto sax student, and lately I’m listening to Kenny Garrett, Antonio Hart. Guys like that. But absolutely no smooth jazz.”

MZ: “Now, be careful. Some people call the Crusaders smooth jazz.”

DG: “Yeah, you’re right. They were traditional guys once, and they crossed over with Street Life. What are you listening to?”

MZ: “Ahmad Jamal. He has no boundaries. He’s reinvented his sound. At one point he was playing only standards. Why? You have to stay in the boundaries. If you step out, they’ll say, That’s not jazz. I say, So what? I’m playing the same thing over and over, and I’m boring myself to death.”

DG: “That’s a problem. Some say traditional jazz is a dead genre.”

MZ: “Is there a note that hasn’t been played? I don’t think so. Jamal reworked the whole thing, suddenly, and now I play whatever I feel. What’s that playing now? Coldplay? Michael Jackson? I don’t care if it’s not traditional jazz — if it’s a nice song, I’ll be able to do something with it.”

DG: “But you run the risk of alienating your core of traditional-jazz fans.”

MZ: “At this point in my life, I play what I hear, whether that’s a traditional jazz song or a modern song. It can be any song that I hear. As an artist, I will make it my own. I am what I am. Like Ahmad. He has no category.”

DG: “Years ago you told me that you no longer practice piano. That whatever comes out comes out.”

MZ: “I’m still staying right there with that thought. I’m recording tomorrow, and I have no idea what I’m going to play.”

DG: “It’s been said that due to the scope and complexity of the material, jazz musicians tend to be smarter than most.”

MZ: “I do agree. The point is to play in the moment. You should change every time. The point is to not repeat yourself. That’s the whole point of jazz.”

DG: “But it takes an insane amount of rote practice to get to that point.”

MZ: “You practice the instrument. You don’t practice jazz. That’s an important concept.”

DG: “A mystery: each piano is made the same way, machine-like. Yet every pianist sounds different. How is this possible?”

MZ: “It’s the touch. You can play a c. My c and your c are going to sound the same. The whole thing changes when you play a major chord. It’s the energy you put into it. How you touch it. Your fingers. But it starts right here [he taps his forehead].”

DG: “Do you think that the great jazz discoveries of the ’50s and ’60s exhausted the supply of ideas?”

MZ: “Probably. Where are you going to go with it? It’s already been done. I don’t think we can outplay them. It was their music. Who’s going to play a better combination? What’s left? We gotta move on.”

DG: “Still, there are musicians who worship at that chipped altar.”

MZ: “That’s their choice, but I believe we may build on the past but also have to step into the new times and play the new moment.”

DG: “In Kosovo, not generally thought of as a jazz town, how did you learn to play?”

MZ: “I’m trained by ear and self-taught. I have no ‘jazz school’ training. I transcribed what I heard on the radio. Tapes and records cost too much. All I did was listen, repeat, listen, repeat.”

DG: “How would you describe the state of the jazz scene in San Diego?”

MZ: “It’s getting better, but we should have more places we could play jazz.”

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Jay Allen Sanford April 6, 2012 @ 5:51 p.m.

I really enjoy the conversational flow of this! Feels like sitting down and chatting with one of the local masters --


sachaboutros April 10, 2012 @ 4:31 p.m.

Fabulous....it is like sitting down and speaking with Mikan only sans that charming Serbian accent we all love. I am so happy for you and glad someone is speaking up about the jazz scene as well, couldn't come from a more talented musician and someone who I am so lucky to call Friend :) Sachita


Tokeli Baker April 11, 2012 @ 9:14 a.m.

Great interview with a local legend. Thanks for your words, Mikan. I like the direction you're headed ... have fun with the journey. Love and respect.


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