Istanbul is already home to two major jazz festivals, but the scene registered a meaningful new addition lately. Emin Findikoglu, a pianist, composer and arranger who studied in USA during the '60s and was behind the very first jazz festival organized in the Bosphorous city, was contacted by the Municipality of Besiktas to organize a jazz weekend. Now this is a great surprise and very welcome change, according to Emin, since in the past it was always the other way around: he had to go and plea to the local authorities to organize jazz concerts.
Besiktas is one of the many municipalities forming the Metropolitan Istanbul, and one of the most historically significant, boasting such treasures as the Dolmabahçe and Yildiz palaces in its territory. Apparently the administration has decided to bring new life to the ancient monuments with a full program of activities in the fields of arts, theatre, and music, giving another lift to the city toward an international standard in these matters.
Emin, for his deep love of the music and uninterrupted knowledge on the scene for many years, was an excellent choice for the purpose, and he came up with an idea to fill a void: there's no European jazz festival in the city, and whatever this means artistically, strengthening European ties with groups from all over the continent performing in Istanbul is clearly highly significant in the current political climate. The program was intended to show, at least partially, the different options available to jazz musicians in Europe today. It had no other unifying theme than excellent musicianship and integral committment to one's own ideas on music, and so many different tastes were catered for.
The municipality took a gamble with the location of the concerts, using one extremely popular spot: the small square of Ortakoy. This is an ancient village on the Bosporous from where the most used postcard image comes: the first bridge joining Europe and Asia dominating the ornate profile of a small baroque mosque erected right on the water. The forecast announced rain and storms; rain would have stopped the festival, as the old plastic sheet hastily fastened on top of the stage was blown away by the wind very early on, but weather is absolutely unpredictable in Istanbul, so we in fact enjoyed three days of sun and wind, making the occasion all more spectacular due to the banners and flags weaving around the stage. The organization was a little shakya one-man-show, where Emin had to act as Festival director, stage manager, MC, administrator, press office and generally everything; finally however everything ran smoothly, including press and television coverage for an event which could not boast any famous (by American standard) musicians.
In order to allow the best exposure, all concert programs included three groups and were repeated twice, one in the evening and the other in the following afternoon, starting from Friday evening and closing Sunday afternoon, for a total of six groups playing twice.
Italian group Lennie's Pennies is a pianoless quartet dedicated to the music of Lennie Tristano, featuring Pietro Tonolo on sax and Roberto Rossi on trombone backed by Aldo Zunino on bass and Alfred Kramer on drums. The details of the intricate, finely intertwined lines of the horns were a little lost in the difficult acoustic ambience, and Tristano's music is never easy on the casual listener. However it was played with such a masterful ease that the audience couldn't miss its quality, welcoming them warmly.
Denmark's String Swing, led by saxophonist Soren Siegumfeldt, presented their own brand of well-crafted, enjoyable music, drawing inspiration from Django's tradition but modernizing it; Siegumfeldt married a Turkish girl, so he's been a regular visitor and his speech in Turkish endeared him to the audience.
Trumpeter Stephane Belmondo also was not on his first visit in Istanbul, but he was even more impressive than ever. Playing with fire and imagination through a program of jazz classics, he confirmed to be one of the world top specialists on his instrument. Might be nationalistic pride, but Italian pianist Antonio Farao from this group stood out as one of the revelations of the festival, his rhythmic variations and harmonic inventiveness unhindered by the electric piano.
Hungarian trumpet player Janos Hamori had an hard time in the comparison to Belmondo, and the unquestionable musicianship of the members of his quartet did not translate, at least for this listener, into a personal, original statement. However they're very young and there's plenty of material to build on.
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.