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.

AAJ: Checking In was recorded primarily in Stockholm but also in different parts of the world. Was it difficult to coordinate so many locations and musicians?

RI: Because of the scheduling and availability of the musicians, some of the recordings took place in different cities. We recorded China Moses in Paris, Joel Holmes in New York and Nils Landgren in Luxembourg while we were out on tour with the Funk Unit. It wasn't easy with so many different musicians, but I think it was definitely worth it, as the album is much richer than it would have been without them. I recorded the songs over a year, as I had to concentrate on the gigs I was already booked for. I knew I couldn't do both. When I had time, I worked more on the album. When I got back from Spain, I headed straight back out on tour, this time to the States, and I also had shows in Thailand and Germany. It was fine, though; I knew I didn't want to rush anything. This was going to be my first album, and I wanted to get it right the first time.

AAJ: You explore your Turkish heritage on the song "Hastayim Yasiyorum." Why did you choose to record that particular piece?

RI: I listen to Turkish classical music quite often. It usually features big choirs and huge string orchestras, but I wanted to try and arrange a piece from the Turkish classical library, for jazz trio. I love the work of Udi Hrant, a blind oud player that composed "Hastayim Yasiyorum." The title means: "I'm sick, but I'm alive." I have always loved this composition, and so I told Erik that I wanted to arrange it for a jazz trio.

AAJ: What other names from Turkey would you recommend to an AAJ reader?

RI: Husnu Senlendirici is a great clarinetist that plays lots of different styles, including modern jazz. Zeki Muren is a fantastic singer with really perfect pronunciation—in fact, people who study Turkish often listen to Zeki Muren's songs, as he sings so clearly and "properly" in Turkish.

AAJ: Checking In is out on your own label, Stockholm Jazz Records.

RI: I decided to release it on my own label, rather than shopping around for someone to release it, because I wanted to retain creative control over every aspect of the album, from the sound to the artwork, as it is such a personal project. Stockholm Jazz Records started when I was in a group about 11 or 12 years ago, and we decided to put out our first recording ourselves. Later I hooked up with pianist Daniel Tilling and we continued with the label. Now we have almost 20 recordings. All the musicians on the label are busy people, but we still try to put some effort into it whenever we can. We have some great CDs on the label by some very talented musicians on the label. I like to have projects outside of my other work that are still music related.

AAJ: Today, with music platforms such as iTunes or Spotify, people can listen to different styles of music much more easily than ever before. Do you feel the diversity of styles on Checking In will appeal to today's music fans more because of this?

RI: I hadn't thought about it that way before, but it is possible. I just knew that the range of styles would hold people's attention much better in a live setting. While my next album might well stick to one style, right now I want to show people how all these examples of good music can work well together. The first release shows are in Stockholm, Berlin and Paris, and when people from different cultures come to my shows, they'll hear one song with a jazz trio and the next will be much funkier, with a Fender Rhodes and an electric bass, and the next with a singer, like China Moses. The live show is a kind of musical journey, which in my opinion is a lot more fun to witness than an hour of the same kind of music.

AAJ: So do you aim to educate your audiences with a musical trip around the world?

RI: I'd like people to leave the venue feeling like they've learned something or at least heard something new. They'll also have seen a lot of good musicians interacting with each other.

AAJ: While it is interesting to note the different styles and influences on Checking In, it very much remains a jazz recording.

RI: I approach different genres from a jazz perspective, and there's improvisation on each song on the album. It is the melodies that come from different genres or parts of the world, not the way they are played on the album. The songs are played in a jazz style. I'd like people that come to the show or listen to the album on CD to be able to go away afterwards and sing some of the melodies. I want the melodies to stick in people's minds. I knew I wanted to try and bring together world-class musicians that represent the different musical traditions that inspire me, but I wasn't sure exactly how it would work. It turned out much better than I could have ever imagined.

Selected Discography

Ikiz, Checking In (Stockholm Jazz Records, 2012)
Magnus Lindgren Batucada Jazz, Live at New Morning, Paris (Gazell Records, 2012)
Magnum Coltrane Price, The Getaway (CareMusic, 2010)
Nils Landgren Funk Unit, Funk For Life (ACT, 2010)
Dan Reed Band, Live at Union Chapel (DVD) (Zero one Music, 2010)
Erik Lindeborg Trio, Time (Stockholm Jazz Records, 2010)
Tilling-Ikiz-Kling, Solitary Interests (Stockholm Jazz Records, 2009)
Andreas Öberg with Marian Petrescu, Live In Concert (Hot Club Records, 2006)
Andreas Öberg, Young Jazz Guitarist (Hot Club Records, 2005)

Photo Credit

Pages 1, 3: Mikael Silkeberg

Page 2: Courtesy of Robert Mehmet Sinan Ikiz

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