Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Jazz in Turkey (Essay)

The music of Turkey has so impressed past visiting jazzmen that many wrote music incorporating the local rhythms and colors. A few examples are Brubecks "Blue Rondo A La Turk," "Turkish Bath" by Don Ellis, and John Surman's "Galata Bridge." Closer to an "exotic" vogue is Pete LaRoca's album Turkish Women at the Bath, while Lennie Tristano's "Turkish Mambo" (definitely not a mambo) may have some Turkish connection as a dedication to the Ertegun brothers, two Turks that definitely played a major role in black music and jazz in the USA. Let's not forget Atlantic's Arif Mardin or Ilhan Mimaroglu, a pioneer of electronic music, producer of some Atlantic Mingus sessions, and author of some disturbing works featuring jazz soloists like Freddie Hubbard and Janis Siegel. Don Cherry included traditional Turkish tunes in his Live at Ankara, and the almost-forgotten multi-instrumentalist and educator Donald Rafael Garrett studied Turkish music intensively: some of his pioneering work is available on the live Ankara recording Memoirs of a Dream reissued by Kali Fasteau's label Flying Note.
Turkish music's variety of time signatures is inherently close to the polyrhythmic feeling typical of jazz. The harmonic system, close to what we call modal -- in fact all modes are called with names derived by Anatolian regions -- the microtonal "bending" of notes (similar to techniques used in jazz & blues idioms), are all elements appealing to jazz musicians.

For centuries in Istanbul, the most cosmopolitan of towns, musicians of Mediterranean origins -- Greeks, Jews, Italians, Armenians, Gypsies -- met virtuosos and theorists coming from the nations of Islamic civilizations. The modernist Turkey of the Twenties, with its eye on the West as the ideology of the new Republic, was especially open to Western dance music quickly popularized by radio and records. Incidentally, there's a wealth of Turkish tangos available on CD.

In the 30's there were professional jazz orchestras, and from the 40's on the radio began to broadcast jazz. In the 50's, trumpet player Maffy Falay was "discovered" by Dizzy Gillespie in Ankara, and went on -- with the American's encouragement -- to a major career. His group Sevda was among the first experiments, at the beginning of the 70's, in "fusion" of jazz and traditional Turkish idioms. In it a prominent role was played by percussionist Okay Temiz, whose own Oriental Wind was another step in the same direction. Temiz and Falay moved to Northern Europe, but their prestige and influence in the native country continued to grow, inspiring younger players like Burhan Oçal and Tuna Otenel. Oçal, a master darbuka player and multi-instrumentalist, can be heard in the Groove Alla Turca project co-led with Jamaladeen Tacuma: meeting of a jazz group with an oriental-style ensemble, it has exhilarating moments. Otenel, pianist and saxophonist, is a key sideman in many Turkish jazz records, and leads his own European trio in France where he recorded L'Ecume De Vian with Pierre Michelot on bass.

Turkish jazz musicians can be divided today into those more interested in developing a "proper" Jazz idiom, and those more oriented toward experiments that fuse jazz with different strains of Turkish music. Among the former, pianist Aydin Esen recorded for CBS in New York, and keeps a loose connection with top European players like Czech bassist George Mraz and French drummer Daniel Humair; guitarist Onder Focan is a major interpreter of the standard repertoire, but he plays in a wide variety on contexts. For the latter, very representative is Asia Minor, led by electric bass player Kamil Erdem and including saxophonist Yahya Dai, with a very attractive mixture of electric jazz and Turkish motifs. Erkan Ogur, extraordinary player of all plucked strings, traditional or otherwise, produces extended meditations influenced by Coltrane and Hendrix in his Telvin trio, and is a major force in all Turkish music.

Luckily there are no strict boundaries between groups and genres, so an internationally famous classical pianist like Fazil Say and the last exponent of the foremost lineage of Sufi ney players, Kudsi Erguner, naturally found their meeting ground in jazz. Their live collaboration has not yet been issued, but check out Erguner's excellent CDs Ottomania or Islam Blues on the German ACT label. Ihsan Ozgen, learned conservatory professor, leads his Anatolia group in extended improvisations, and brushed with European jazz in a one-time collaboration with Dutch pianist Guus Janssen. Songwriter Ozdemir Erdogan led a series of '70s jazz groups, where pop star Fatih Erkoç showed his "second identity" as a jazz trombone player, while in the current CDs of the queen of Turkish pop, Sezen Aksu, there are many jazz influences, with Marc Johnson playing bass and percussionist Arto Tunçboyaciyan arranging. The Armenian Navy band led by Tunçboyaciyan, now based in the USA, is a major example of traditionally-based, but jazz influenced, music.

Tenor saxophonist Ilhan Ersahin commutes with New York with his mixture of electronic rhythms, throaty jazz improvisation and poetry. Rapper Sultana, Saadet Turkoz, Sibel Kose and Feyza represent a growing group of vocalists, and established "art" singer Esin Afsar gave a charming jazz reading of Asik Veysel's hugely popular airs. Ayse Tutuncu created a unique sound with her Piano-Percussion group, its repertoire ranging from Debussy to Carla Bley, from Turkish tangos to the Yellowjackets, but the base of active jazz musicians is rapidly growing, and Butch Morris's Istanbul conductions featured many of them.

Keyboardist Ali Perret, drummers Can Kozlu and Cengiz Baysal are now teaching in the first major Jazz education program -- at Bilgi University in Istanbul where Mingus alumnus Ricky Ford leads the band -- but many Universities boast their own jazz society and well-attended festivals. The "alternative" Acik Radyo in Istanbul makes Jazz a substantial part of its offerings, and a specialized quarterly is widely available in bookstores and newsstands.

For the music-interested tourist, Istanbul is full of surprises: in the Beyoglu area many clubs feature live music, and one should check at least Babylon and Roxy, at the opposite ends of the pedestrian thoroughfare Istiklal Caddesi, where several excellent record shops are located, including Lale Plak, specialized in jazz, it's friendly and well-stocked, and is where labels featuring the best of Turkish production, like Doublemoon and Kalan, can be found.

by Francesco Martinelli


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