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Fahir Atakoglu: Istanbul Blues

Duncan Heining By

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The history of jazz has been one of fusion. Its musicians and composers have continually drawn upon a huge range of different musics to create the rich and diverse tapestry that is world jazz today. Jazz is an evolving tradition of music-making. And how often, in the life stories of individual jazz musicians, do we see these same patterns operating at microcosm?

When it comes to the music of Turkish-born pianist-composer Fahir Atakoglu, we might define it broadly as "jazz fusion," given its nods in the direction of Corea, Hancock and Metheny. But even a cursory listen reveals so much more. Atakoglu's fourth album, Live at Umbria Jazz came out recently and it is a tour de force of jazz piano trio art.

Here, a heightened sense of the dramatic replaces the bombast all too often found in jazz fusion. Its tunes are melodically complex but filled with clever hooks and delivered with a joyous abandonment by Atakoglu and Cuban drummer Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez and electric bassist Alain Caron. The pianist's fearsome technique is never deployed as an end in itself—it always serves the music. This is music that ebbs and flow organically. It is music of tension and release. But most of all, it is the sheer range of different musical experiences that Atakoglu's brings to bear that really sets his music aside from the pack.

The album draws extensively on the pianist's second CD, Istanbul in Blue, a beautiful set of tunes with exceptional contributions from guitarists Wayne Krantz and Mike Stern and saxophonist Bob Franceschini. The music on, both records, shifts easily between Anatolian and Cuban rhythms delivered with a combination of precision and freedom. The underlying rhythmic pulse is built upon eights rather than fours and a constant sense of movement underpins some truly lovely melodies.

The opening track "Beyoglu" in 5/8 and "Black Sea" in 7/8 are perfect examples of how Atakoglu crosses the globe from the Balkans and Black Sea to the shores of the Caribbean and the Atlantic. "ESS," which is taken from East Side Story a ballet Atakoglu wrote for the Turkish State Opera and Ballet Company, is a wild, swirling number in 14/8, which contrasts successfully with the 5/4 groove of "Gypsy in Me" and the late night jazz feel of "Connection" which precede it. Recorded in the Teatro Morlacchi, Perugia's wedding cake of an opera house, Live is one of those records that makes you wish you'd been there.

Atakoglu's journey has taken him far from his birthplace but his homeland remains a major part of his musical vision and inspiration. Turkey is a country where East and West meet, where the music of the Black Sea meets that of the Arab and Muslim worlds and where the music of Anatolia connects with the European classical tradition. Atakoglu emigrated to the USA twenty-two years ago but these influences remain a source of pride and a strong element in his art.

"Look at the South East of Turkey, some amazing music has come out because it is there that it meets with the music of the Arabic peoples," he tells me. "Go to the North and the Black Sea. That 7/8 rhythm comes from there. That is their rhythm, like the Cubans move to 12/8. And there are influences from Russia. Look at the art of Turkey. Look at religion. Every religion has passed through Anatolia. Even Buddhism. They have found Buddhist places in the mountains in Turkey." Atakoglu's own musical development was similarly diverse. His family home was always full of music.

"My mother loved classical music," he says. "When I was in high school, my music teacher introduced me to one of the great Turkish composers, Cemal Reşit Rey—one of the "Turkish Five" composers, who were the pioneers of classical music in Turkey. He was a friend of Debussy, Ravel and everything. At the same time, in high school, I started listening to Chicago, Blood Sweat and Tears, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. You can hear it in my music. It just comes out naturally. That is how I got into improvising. I was always improvising when I was writing, though then I did not know that is what it was. For me, that was composing."

The richness of Turkish music and culture sometimes seems at odds with its turbulent and cruel history. In 1979, when Atakoglu was seventeen, the country suffered its third military take-over in thirty years. "It was a bloodbath," he says. "My family had to send me away to England."

Atakoglu attended Croydon College in S.E. London and started meeting jazz musicians and playing with them in wine bars. He entered South London Jazz Federation's jazz competition and came second. Despite his father's wishes to the contrary, a career in music already beckoned. At the time, the life of a musician in Turkey—with a few exceptions—meant little. As he explains, this was in large measure due to the contradictions in Turkish society and its culture.

"It was not like we didn't know jazz. Every kind of music was in Turkey at that point. But it was not appreciated. To understand the culture of the country, with those three military takeovers, Turkey could not go anywhere. Musically, it was very difficult. But things were beginning to happen."

This was to prove an important period in Atakoglu's musical career. Drawing on a fertile combination of traditional Turkish and European classical musics, he began writing for films and documentaries. It was this experience that gives his work in jazz its particular filmic, narrative character. His first album came out in 1994 and featured music he had written for these documentaries, several of which focused on the country's history and which included his highly evocative theme for the film Sari Zeybek. That film was about the last year in the life of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

"The melody I wrote for that film is still being played all over Turkey every 10th November, the day that he died," Atakoglu tells me. "It became like one with his name and that is how my name became known in Turkey and then came the films and dramas."

In turn, these films offered the pianist and composer the chance to find new modes of expression in his music and a way of articulating his own experiences of exile and disgust at the horrors perpetrated by the Turkish military. One senses in Atakoglu both a profound love for his homeland but also a frustration with the obstacles, many self-imposed, that it faces. It is as if Turkey is a country in waiting.

"It has so much potential and with a potential for even greater music," he says. "If only Turkish musicians, composers and artists could just start expressing themselves as they should. But they are not allowed to. They are not allowed to. They are called criminals, if they say something. So, it is very difficult at this moment. I just wish that things had been better in Turkey these last ten years with this government. Before that we had these military takeovers. It is just that to find your own voice you've got to have something to say and I do believe Turkish people right now have lots to say, man. Especially with jazz music they could say a lot and a lot of good music could come out of Turkey. But you know, if you look at the country, your hopes may die."

Hearing Atakoglu speak in this way offers insights into his music. There is a real passion, of frustrations released, but it is always coupled with a capacity for tenderness and affection. One can also understand his decision to relocate to Washington DC, where he now lives with his Turkish actor wife and children. Not only does it offer greater musical opportunities but it has allowed him to play with some of the USA's finest players.

If, his first album and first jazz release, came out in 2005. Featuring the talents of Horacio Hernandez on drums, Anthony Jackson on electric bass and on two tracks Donny McCaslin on saxophones, If made for a very impressive opening statement. At times, there is almost a Mozart-like quality to some of the melodies but then the Austrian had been influenced, to a degree at least, by the Turkish music of the Mehter, the elite Turkish military bands of the Ottoman empire. The sheer pace and exuberance of the playing on If is at times quite frightening but the trio's handling of complex time signatures like the 10/8 of "Ten Eight" and the 14/8 of "Andolu" makes these seem natural and effortless. Yet, it is Atakoglu's harmonic gifts that catch the attention on "Two Ways" and "Beyoglu," even when the tempos threaten to combust.

Traditional Turkish music is essentially monophonic, rich in melody and rhythm but with little by way of harmony. The contrast with western music, with its beautiful harmonies but rhythmic weaknesses, could not be more marked. And Turkish musical scales are microtonal, unlike Western equally-tempered scales.

"In Turkey, we are born into monophony," Atakoglu says. "I saw myself as at an advantage because, studying piano, I knew polyphony but I started out learning all those Turkish scales and how they could shape the minor scale. We all know the minor scale but, in Turkish music, there are maybe ten or more of them. And in our culture, we break the melodies into eights. When you break the music into eights, you could really understand these odd tempos. My point is that (in Turkey) we come from such a culture that embraced the music and the tempos and rhythms in a different way from the Christians in Western Europe."

For Atakoglu, it was jazz rather than Debussy, Chopin or Beethoven, that allowed him to bring these different influences together in his music. "Listening to jazz music, to the freedom of the melody and the freedom of how the melody is delivered," Atakoglu tells me, "meant I could implement what I had in my heart, what I heard as I was growing up. Jazz was for me that channel."

Istanbul in Blue was released in 2007 and took full advantage of the possibilities of the expanded line-up. Atakoglu was able to share unison melody lines with Wayne Krantz, Mike Stern or Bob Franceschini and this inevitably brings to mind Chick Corea's Return to Forever. It is a comparison that neither flatters, nor diminishes Atakoglu's achievement here. The melodies and rhythms are his own conception and when the pace slows with "Connection," its title referencing the Galata Bridge which crosses the Golden Horn linking the east and west of Istanbul and at a figurative level East and West, the subtle rhythmic and harmonic variations are both a personal signature and emotionally affecting. With "Four Corners," the fact that this slinky, alluring tune would seem perfectly right on an album by Michael Brecker or Pat Metheny, is a genuine compliment. The music pulses and vibrates and ebbs and flows with its own sense of completeness. The record finishes elegantly with the title track, a romantic, affectionate ballad to the composer's birthplace.

Given the strong Turkish influence on his music, I wonder how Atakoglu communicates what is required to musicians schooled in jazz or Latin music but outside this other aspect of his musical world. Take the unusual tempos, for example. "In some parts of the world, especially in Cuba, in Latin music, they know those," he tells me. "They grow up working with eights. I always worked with Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez—I worked with other drummers, too—but with Horacio there is this chemistry between us. We understand those odd tempos."

And when it comes to bringing these different traditions together, Atakoglu does what jazz musicians have always done—jazz is, after all a "how" and not a "what." It is, as Atakoglu explains, a case of doing what comes naturally.

"Not all Turkish musicians explore those tempos and rhythms," he says. "Sometimes, however, they force themselves to bring something Turkish to the music. I never do that. When it comes naturally, then it is successful. Not if you force it. If you look at my life, I left Turkey when I was seventeen, though I went back again and again. I thought of myself as a musician—not as a Turkish musician. When I bring all those melodies and tempos, I want the musicians I play with to give their own understanding without me explaining to them what it is all about. We can get into the science of it but I just to make music. It's not a hybrid. It shouldn't be like that. John Patitucci told me this and "El Negro" told me this—they said, when they play my odd tempos, because my melodies are so strong, if they follow the melody they get the beat and the groove."

To be honest, I am less enamored with Faces & Places, Atakoglu's third record which came out in 2009. It is a matter of personal taste but, for me, it is one of those examples when more is less. The CD features a number of hard-hitting guests, including Wayne Krantz, bassist John Patitucci, Bob Mintzer on saxophones, trumpeter Randy Brecker and flamenco guitar from Rene Toledo, as well as additional percussion and strings.

Atakoglu's core abilities lie in his melodies, the harmonies he constructs around the Turkish-inspired scales from which his melodies are derived and the way he uses eights to create unusual rhythmic patterns. These are found here but sometimes seem buried beneath too many musical layers. That said, there is no faulting the playing or the innate strength of the compositions on offer here. This makes Live at Umbria Jazz all the more important. It is a summation of Atakoglu's career to date and a complete expression of his virtues and values in music.

Twenty-two years ago, Fahir Atakoglu came to the USA and he has made a life for himself and his family there. As he says, "America is still the place for musicians from all around the world—it is like a melting pot. When I came here, I was still doing things in Turkey—and I still do—but I felt that in the States I could really do something with my music. I could get people to listen to my music. I saw that potential. In Turkey, it wasn't like that. Especially with the music I wanted to do."

Like his tune, "Gypsy in Me" from Istanbul in Blue, Atakoglu carries home inside him and Turkey will always be a part of that home. So, what does the future hold?

"My next album will have songs on it that will be sung in their own language," he tells me. "There is this wonderful African-Spanish singer Concha Buika and she sings and has written lyrics for one of my tunes. I also have another brilliant singer from Brazil, Luciana Souza, on the record. I want the music to have a natural, organic flow and feel. And I'm just going to keep on playing and compose my music and whatever comes, comes. Of course, I'd love to do a movie in the United States but it is very competitive. There are a couple of things. One of them is a High School Movie. (Laughing) I don't know why but they thought I would do great music for that!"

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