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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.

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