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Robert Mehmet Sinan Ikiz: All Aboard

James Pearse By

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As an integral member of acclaimed outfits Nils Landgren Funk Unit, Magnus Lindgren Batacuda Jazz and Dan Reed Band, 32-year-old drummer and percussionist Robert Mehmet Sinan Ikiz has already toured the world several times over. The wealth of places, people and musical styles he has encountered on his travels has helped shape the diverse sound of Ikiz's debut recording as a leader, Checking In (Stockholm Jazz Records, 2012).

Born in 1979 in Istanbul, Turkey, Ikiz's family moved to Sweden when he was four years old. After enrolling in the Afro-American music program at Stockholm Music Conservatory, Ikiz received a scholarship to study at the Los Angeles Music School under drum ace Anthony Inzalaco. Once back in Europe, Ikiz set about building a career in jazz, which has seen him play, on occasion, with artists as diverse as pianists Joe Sample and Frank McComb and vocalists Barbara Hendricks and China Moses. He has also worked with the BBC Big Band in England, the NDR Big Band in Germany and symphony orchestras in the Czech Republic and elsewhere. His drumming can even be heard on a TV commercial with hip-hop giant Jay-Z.

As a touring musician, Ikiz spends a great deal of time in hotels and airport terminals. "That's where I got the idea to call my album Checking In," he explains. "I decided to record my own album, as I've been travelling around for years with a lot of different groups, and I've played on a lot of other people's albums, yet I never found the time to do my own, until now."

All About Jazz: Checking In features all sorts of influences, from soul and funk to classical music from Turkey, yet jazz is the central sound of the recording and the majority of your work as a musician. How did you first get interested in jazz?

Robert Ikiz: I first got into jazz when I was at high school in Stockholm. I listened to a lot of bebop, cool bop and other styles from the '50s, '60s and '70s. When I was 19 years old, I went to Los Angeles and studied with Tony Inzalaco, who'd played with Dexter Gordon, Carmen McRae and the Oscar Peterson Trio. I saw the fire he had when he was playing the drums. That's what made me want to improve as a jazz musician.

AAJ: Who were your first jazz heroes?

RI: Tony [Inzalaco] was the first. He was the first musician I saw playing live with the kind of energy and spirit that I wanted to have. When I got back to Sweden, I started buying a lot of CDs by all the big names: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and also lot of piano players like Bud Powell, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans.

AAJ: Did you tend to listen specifically to what the drummers on the recordings you heard were doing?

RI: Sure, when I first started listening to jazz, I listened out for the drummer, but nowadays I listen more to the melody, the compositions and the structure of the songs, rather than what the drummer is doing. I listen for how the ensemble is playing together. That's what really interests me. If I listen to a drummer today, I observe how they interact with the other musicians. When I started putting together Checking In, I was sure I didn't want to make a drummer's recording. I wanted to make an album with good, solid songs and nice melodies, with a group that is playing very much together. I think that if you listen to the album and you don't know whose album it is, you wouldn't necessarily hear it was put together by a drummer.

AAJ: Which contemporary drummers do you most admire?

Checking InRI: Eric Harland is a great drummer. He came to Sweden a few years ago, and we hooked up. We went down to my studio and hung out and talked about music and drumming. Since then, we've run into each other at different festivals around Europe. I think he's become one of the most innovative younger drummers around. I am incredibly inspired by him. I also love the work of Clarence Penn. Then there's Roy Haynes—he's a legend.

AAJ: You've worked on a tremendous number of albums, and you work with different musicians all the time. When did you decide it was time to record your own album?

RI: Touring for the past three years with Nils Landgren has made me think about music in entirely new ways—not only music, but also the music business itself. While we were on tour, people would ask me after the gigs about my own work and if I had my own CD. This got me thinking. I started to look at what I was doing and saw I was playing jazz with different groups and then funk with Nils Landgren. I was also in a Brazilian jazz group, Batacuda Jazz, with Magnus Lindgren. So I thought I should do a recording that mixes all these styles that I play. Checking In is a kind of snapshot of everything I have been involved in musically for the past three or four years.

AAJ: There are a lot of guests on the album.

RI: I wanted to feature some of the people I play with and also some musicians I really respect. I met China Moses at a festival in 2011, and was really touched by her style and artistry. I knew right away I wanted to have her on the album, and when she said yes I was really happy. I sent her a sketch of the song "Insanely" so she could write the lyrics. It turned out so well, I decided to release it as a single. Then there's Joel Holmes, who toured with Roy Hargrove, and also invited Nils Landgren to play on one track. We've worked together for the past three years in his Funk Unit, and we collaborated with Medecins Sans Frontieres' musical education project Funk For Life. We went to Kibera in Africa to raise money for the people there.

AAJ: New York City pianist Shai Maestro plays on two tracks on the album. How did you meet him?



RI: I met Shai after the Stockholm Jazz Festival 2010, when he was playing with bassist Avishai Cohen, and we jammed together. We met up again in New York when I was there, and then he came back to Stockholm to play again with Avishai Cohen. He managed to find a time in his schedule between a TV appearance and that evening's concert, so I booked a studio and chose two songs for him to play on. I picked songs that I thought fitted his style of playing, but to be honest, I could have chosen anything because he is such a great player and he can play anything well. He's got a very special touch. It sounds like he's played a lot of classic music in his time. He's a very elegant player in many respects.

AAJ: The other pianist on the album is up-and- coming Swedish musician Erik Lindeborg, with whom you collaborate frequently. He also has a distinctly classical sound to his jazz playing.

RI: I agree. Erik is a very talented musician with a very intellectual touch. He appears on most of the songs on Checking In. We wrote one song and arranged another one together. I love working with him. I have been playing with his trio for the past couple of years [along with bassist Kristian Lind], and we know each other on stage really well, so he was a natural choice to play on my album.

AAJ: You wrote the majority of the songs on Checking In along with saxophonist Magnus Lindgren.

RI: Magnus and I have played together a lot, and I really like the way Magnus composes. I also respect the way he gives the musicians a lot of freedom on stage. Magnus and I went on a writing tour to Spain. Things went so well that Magnus ended up co-writing seven or eight of the songs that made it onto the final version of the album. We went to Spain, as I wanted to get away from Sweden, and I have a friend with a place in a quiet, rural area of Spain. I had some melodies and grooves in my head and a basic idea of what I wanted to achieve before we went there. We got a lot done in terms of the music and the scores, so I was prepared to start recording when I got back to Sweden.

AAJ: Did Spain—famous for its good food, wine and relaxed lifestyle—have an impact on the writing process?

RI: Spain did influence us, to a certain degree. The first track on the album, "Estepona," was the name of the area where we were staying. I remember one night when it was raining heavily, and I was driving along some back roads near the sea, and there was very little traffic. Suddenly a melody popped into my head, and so I kept on driving while I worked out this melody. I could see North Africa to my left and the Spanish countryside to my right, and no one was around as it was raining. When I got back to the house, I told Magnus we had to do something with the melody right there and then. I sang it into my phone, and when we woke up the next day, we started forming the different parts for the musicians around it. That's how "Estepona" came about. In fact, that's how most of the songs on the album came about.

AAJ: When you sing a melody into your phone and wake up the next day, how do you set about turning it into an actual piece of music?

RI: It differs from song to song, but sometimes Magnus would pick up his saxophone or flute and play the melody I'd recorded on my phone. Sometimes we played it on piano and recorded on the computer, but personally I really like to hear the melody on a sax or a flute to get an idea of how it'll sound live. After that, we started building the chords, and I started writing the different parts for the other musicians. The song "Vino Tinto Por Favor," for example, has a bass hook, so I concentrated on perfecting the bass part. That said, every song is different and comes about in a completely unique way.

AAJ: Would it be difficult to guess what you were doing when you wrote "Vino Tinto Por Favor"?

RI: It was New Year's Eve and we decided to stay in, try some good red wine, and write songs. This was one of the ones we came up with that night. I'm really happy with the way it turned out.

AAJ: Did you have a good idea of how the album would sound by the time you got back from Spain?

Enter the album name here RI: I had most of the melodies worked out but, more than anything, I was very clear when I got back to Sweden about the mix of genres I wanted to include on the album.

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