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Yurdal Tokcan & Ahenk: Turkish Delights

Elliott Simon By

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Middle Eastern instrumentation, modes and rhythms have long served as source material for jazz musicians wishing to extend their musical boundaries. In the early days of jazz, an "oriental tinge was often used to add an air of exotica to a performance piece. Later, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane and others would use these same modes and rhythms as creative inspiration for some of their most famous works.

The musical concordance of the West and the Middle East however, can be traced back much farther to the profound influence that the Ottoman empire had on the development of Western civilization. The crossroads of the world, Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), was headquarters to an empire that lasted for over 600 years and stretched across Asia, Europe and Northern Africa. Given this longstanding presence, a foray into Turkish music and its instrumentation is a valuable way for jazz listeners to expand their listening. Two new releases from Golden Horn records serve as the perfect vehicles to accomplish this.

At the heart of much of Turkish music is the oud, an instrument with a history that reaches back five millennia into antiquity. Typically composed of ten strings set in five pairs with an additional single eleventh string, its classic bowl-like shape and structure allow for its unmatched resonance and ability to produce microtones. These notes between the notes of Western major and minor scales are an important part of Turkish music and its particular maqam or modes. The oud's fretless neck promotes the ease of microtone production and the use of blues-like slides and vibrato.

Interestingly, Western music (pre-Bach) contained microtonal scales, but with the evolutionary simplification of Western composition into major and minor scales, this richness was sacrificed for compositional consistency. For a jazz improviser, however, microtonal modes bring a wealth of improvisational possibilities. Indeed, Turkish music is rife with improvisations or taksim. These improvisations can become exceedingly complex, given the ability in Turkish music to move from one maqam to another within a single piece. In addition, each maqam is composed of smaller note clusters or jintzes. Virtuoso oudists can move from jintz to jintz both within and between maqams using the large breadth of available patterns to improvisatory advantage.

Yurdal Tokcan
Golden Horn

As may be expected, an instrument with as rich a history and cultural centrality as the oud has produced many masters. Though unfamiliar to most Westerners, people like Serif Muhiddin Targan and Cinuçen Tanrıkorur were able to add their own unique contributions to their instrument. However, for much of the oud's long history, in large part due to the predominantly vocal nature of Turkish music, it has been featured as an accompaniment instrument to voice.

It is only relatively recently in the oud's lineage that its solo and improvisatory abilities have been explored. Yurdal Tokcan is a contemporary oudist who plays both classical Turkish and contemporary world music. He has been featured on many different projects such as the beautiful Sephardic music disc, Yahudice that examines the Ladino music of Turkey. His recent solo offering, Passion, expands the oud's repertoire with eight extended and advanced improvisations.

Tokcan's prodigious technical abilities are evident throughout and he showcases his instrument's versatility while bringing to bear non-traditional playing techniques. His speed dazzles and his clarity thrills across these highly emotive pieces with representative titles like "Tears and "Deep Emotion while the music's intent is not sacrificed. In addition to outstanding technique, Passion also reveals both a very musical player and one whose improvisatory abilities are world class. It is in these realms that this program excels. While comparable to the speed and hypnotic rhythms of, for example Indian raga music or even of flamenco, the greater structural breadth of these compositions makes each sonic foray a broader experience. Omer Bisiren joins Tokcan on bendir, a North African frame drum, that adds a sense of grandeur and awe to "Spiritual Love, while the bittersweet ethos of "Separation-To My Father is artfully portrayed through tonal fades that impart a sense of distance.

While Passion presents an oud master in the context of emotional improvisatory works, Ahenk Volume 2 is a duo recording that features a contemporary look at classical Turkish compositions played on kemençe and tanbur. The traditional kemençe used here is a classical three stringed bowed instrument with a sonority akin to a violin, while the tanbur is an ancient plucked string instrument with frets that predates the oud. Its long neck gives it a very wide range and its eight strings allow for harmony with itself. Harmony, the literal meaning of Ahenk, is a striking characteristic of this program. Elegant pieces by some of Turkey's most prominent classical composers from the last four centuries are presented in a wonderfully crisp and clean format.

Ahenk Volume 2
Golden Horn

The duo's approach intertwines the differing timbres of their instruments, set against these strong compositions. Both Murat Aydemir on tanbur and Derya Türkan on kemençe are conservatory-trained musicians and have worked together before (releasing their first volume). Here, the program intersperses improvisations, both joint and individual, among these classical pieces. The improvisations serve as transition points and allow for creative explorations.

This is classically beautiful music that in the hands of these two expert musicians is allowed to reveal its timelessness, while opened up for improvisation. Beginning with the sprightly, melodic, 17th century short composition, "Arazbâr Pesrevi, and proceeding through the stately "Ussâk Pesrevi , the dramatically poignant "Sedd-i Arabân Saz Semâîsi by the innovative composer Tanbûrî Cemîl Bey, and closing with the minuet-like "Pesendîde Saz semâîsi composed by the thirty-third Ottoman sultan, Selîm Hân III, both musicians delve into the music of the Turkish Ottoman period with a profound respect for the tradition and a refreshing harmonic approach.

While Passion and Ahenk Volume 2 provide dramatically different pictures of Middle Eastern music, they are but a small sampling of titles available for jazz listeners desirous of exploring more fully its improvisational aspects.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: Tears; Deep Emotion; Respect For The Master; Moonlight; Morning Wind; Faraway Places; Spiritual Love; Separation-To My Father.

Personnel: Yurdal Tokcan: oud; Omer BiÅŸiren: bendir (8).

Ahenk Volume 2

Tracks: Arazbar Pesrevi; Müsterek Hüseynî'ye Geçis Taksimi Joint Improvisation, Transition To Huseyni Makam; Ussâk Tanbûr Taksimi; Ussâk Saz Semâîsi; Sedd-i Arabân Pesrevi; Müsterek Sedd-i Arabân Taksim; Sedd-i Arabân Saz semâîsi; Mahûr Kemençe taksimi; Improvisation On Kemençe; Mâhûr Pesrevi; Müsterek Pesendîde'ye Geçis Taksimi Joint improvisation, Transition To Pesendide Makam; Pesendîde Saz semâîsi.

Personnel: Derya Türkan: kemençe; Murat Aydemir: tanbur.


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