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Jazzin' Around Europe

Izmir European Jazz Festival and Istanbul Club Scene

By Published: April 13, 2003
Izmir, the ancient Smyrne, is an Egean town, to us music fanatics especially relevant for having given birth to the Rebetiko style. Now after wars and ethnic divisions there isn’t any Greek community anymore, and to “feel” the city one has to dig deep into the Turkish ancient market, away from the newish seafront boulevards. The European Jazz Festival opened there with a “Play Bach” concert that combined the talents of French pianist Jacques Loussier and his trio with the classical duo of twins Guher and Suher Pekinel.

Loussier sold millions of records since the early sixties with his Bach in Jazz interpretations. I find amazing that the authoritative Dictionnaire du Jazz didn’t include an entry about him, so the best assessment of his early work comes from Donald Clarke: “It was less po-faced than many classical pilfering, and there is no doubt about his ability to swing”. Bach himself was not averse to catering to the masses’ taste, and maybe would have approved. His original trio featured Pierre Michelot, and was clearly inspired by John Lewis and George Shearing. Later Loussier did it again with Vivaldi, which I found predictably worse, but in the 90’s after a long period of woodshedding he tackled modern composers like Satie and Ravel. The Pekinel sisters have a distinguished career in classical music, as hard-working and thorough in the rehearsal as light and perfectly synchronized even in the most complex passages. Their duo is a tight unit, and so is Loussier’s trio, in a very different way; so the difference in time conception between the two groups combined was even more striking. There are volume problems – playing with bass and drums is an art by itself and Loussier did it all his life – but above all the idea of how to tackle the tempo is irredeemably different. The difficulties began immediately in the collaboration: when Loussier showed up for the first rehearsal, the scores were notated in numbered chords for the left hand, as jazzmen do with a degree of approximation, and the classical pianists asked – presumably in unison – yes, but which NOTES we play?? “I guess I have to write down everything, huh?” answered Loussier... If the music didn’t jell up in the shared numbers, despite the efforts of excellent bassist Benoit Dunoyer de Segonzac, the most interesting effect was in the classical pieces that the duo played by themselves – the effort toward a jazz style brought a bouncing, lively quality to the music which remained flawlessly played and sharply focused. The Pekinel are not jazz players, nor they want to be, as they pursue their brilliant classical career, but they are searching for something new, a different synthesis, and this is a very healthy attitude. I for one would be curious about them tackling some of the composers that in the XX century tried to wed classical compositions and Turkish rhythms, like Muammer Sun for example, with our without re-arrangements.

The lively music scene of Istanbul, which mostly takes place in the Beyoglu area around the pedestrian thoroughfare Istiklal Caddesi, lately can boast several significant additions, the economical crisis and Iraq war notwithstanding. The first one is without doubt Nardis, a proper, full-time jazz club located within meters of the world-famous Galata Tower and operated by Zuhal and Onder Focan. They added this activity to what looked to me an already full-time commitment to jazz in Turkey: she’s the publisher of the Jazz Dergisi magazine, a thick quarterly rich in images and information, and he’s an excellent guitarist, one of the more active Turkish musicians on the national and European scene. Planned and operated with jazz and music as the priority, the club has an excellent sound system, a grand piano and while the musicians are playing there’s no serving at the tables – the direction encourages actively to focus on the music. Open nightly with a wide range of music, from ethnic-influenced jazz to quasi-classic renditions of standards, the club is a must visit for anybody visiting the Bosphorous metropolis. The area is rich in interesting restaurants, and you can combine sightseeing, cuisine and music: late afternoon browsing in the record shop in the Tunel area – Ada and Lale Plak; a nice walk by the Mevlevi Tekke, where weekly there’s an exhibition of Whirling Dervishes, through a narrow and winding street, flanked by instruments seller, to the Galata Tower, where you can climb to the top and enjoy a breathtaking view of Golden Horn, Bosphorous and all the historic areas of Istanbul (forget about the extremely overpriced restaurant and touristy nightclub up there though). I found there one of my favorite groups, the Ayse Tutuncu Piano Percussion Group, about which I already wrote at length here. In fine form, with saxophonist Yahya Dai much better integrated into the working of the group, they continue to reshape and innovate on the leader’s compositions, a tasteful and rich blend of influence from classical music to jazz, from ethnic roots to fusion and tango. The 4 percussionists section, observed at close range in a club, are a show by themselves!

Not too far there’s Kahve, in a romantic looking passage in front of the Tunel station (Tunel is the underground train that climbs up to Istiklal from the Galata Bridge). It’s a restaurant, but in weekends you can find there the Turkish-American vocalist Feyza singing with Emin Findikoglu on piano laying out original harmonies on well known standards. I was so lucky to find there as a guest tenorist Ricky Ford, a Mingus alumnus, now teaching at Bilgi University where the first full time Jazz program of the country is operating. In conversation Ricky drew me an interesting parallel between the sound of Ben Webster and the breathy ney (reed flute), which he’s now studying with a Turkish master, and sure enough he fully showed in the music his familiarity with Webster’s ballad style, hardening the sound on the more r’n’b blues number and egging Feyza and Emin to reach out with some stimulating, open solos. If the dining clients nearby are compassionate and do not shout too much, it’s a nice evening out. In a small and not too healthy looking sidestreet of Istiklal there’s the Jazz café: on the first and second floor, small and extremely popular. I found there singer-songwriter Bulent Ortaçgil, a long standing favorite of the student and intellectual crowd. For non-turkish speakers the meaning of his words is lost, but what we can enjoy is the fine, jazzy instrumental backing, and especially the solos and fills of master guitarist Erkan Ogur on fretless guitar or any of the many traditional lutes that he uses – look out for him in any contest, especially his current duo concerts of Anatolian folk, to which he brings a distinct jazzy “spirit”. Further north, in the posh Nisantasi neighborhood there’s the Buz Bar, another jazz den where you can find vocalist Sibel Kose and pianist Tuna Otenel, two of the finest Turkish players with a deep knowledge and love of the Jazz book. They also frequently perform in France with various French musicians. This is in addition to the more established Babylon and Roxy club, on the weekends catering to a younger audience with danceable music played by DJ, but in the weekday often presenting excellent international jazz – while I was there Bill Frisell’s quartet was playing Babylon for several nights.

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