Istanbul: Ortakoy European Jazz Weekend
The duo of Sylvain Luc on guitar and Olivier Ker Ourio on harmonica had me skeptical: two instruments I am not especially fond of, and shades of contrived sounds worried my mind. But I was quickly proved wrong, as the unlikely duo unleashed an absolutely breathtaking performance, including modern and old tunes but above all playing with unbounded freedom, having a great fun and involving the audience in it. The crowded square responded with enthousiasm, and they were called back twice. I was not familiar with these musicians (my fault) and for me they were the best surprise of the weekend.
The "European identity of the last group, Ricky Ford's Sax Orchestra, might be questioned: an African-American leading a group of Turkish musicians. But these complexities are part of jazz's charm! Saxophonist Ford is a well known Mingus and Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) alumnus, currently living in France and teaching at the Jazz program in Istanbul's Bilgi University. In this capacity, he reunited a group of eager, committed and bright musicians into an original group of five saxophones, bass and drums, honing them through an hard program of gigs and rehearsals into an ensemble that would be a worthy addition to any jazz festival program, in Europe or elsewhere.
The orchestra suffered most from lack of soundcheck, so the second (afternoon) concert was much more successful when the sound man had a firmer grip on the situation. The repertory of this band is a heady mixture of Ellington, Mingus, Coltrane, Lacy, Ibrahim, and Stevie Wonder, hinting to a broad, open concept of jazz based on the ideas of the man from Nogales. Turkish-American vocalist Feyza was a very welcome addition to the band in a few songs, hitting the right note of weariness in Billie Holiday's classics as well as tenderness to an old chestnut like "I just called to say I love you.
But the meat of the group is in the rich blend of the saxophone sounds, and the extended, burning blowing by Ford as well by his fellow young comrades. Ricky Ford is studying neythe end-blown reed flute associated with mystical Islam musicand he introduces all concerts leading the band through "In a Sentimental Mood" with the eerie, breathy sound of the ancient instrumenta captivating idea.
Among the other unforgettable sights and sounds: the touristic boats on the Bosphorus approaching the shore just behind the stage and drumming for clients with their horns; Emin running around with an Islamic calendar sheet in his pocket, in order to insure that the intermissions between groups would allow the call to prayer from the nearby mosque go undisturbed; and above all, the unbelievable mix of faces and characters in the audience, from local retired people asking what was going on to young hip international musicians, from curious tourists to angry tea sellers fearing that the strange sounds would harm their business.
All in all, an highly enjoyable occasion, with much excellent music in a very special spot, and a worthy addition to the Istanbul jazz panorama; I do hope that the Besiktas municipality will repeat the festival, honing out the few wrinkles in the organization and putting another brick into the re-building of Istanbul as one of Europe's cultural capitals.