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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.


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