New CD Release: Blending the Worlds with Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol & Whatsnext
Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol is a Boston-based composer, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, Harvard research fellow, and academic scholar and professor. On his Whatsnext album, there is a 17-piece big band and a 13-piece jazz combo which pair traditional Turkish instruments with horn-based jazz arrangements to perform the Turkish music-influenced compositions. Mehmet has completed his new jazz orchestra album Resolution – Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol & Whatsnext?, featuring his Whatsnext Jazz Orchastra, and many other special guest artists including Dave Liebman, Anat Cohen, Toru “Tiger” Okoshi, and Antonio Sanchez. The new album will be officially released on September 23 on DÜNYA; however, you can pre-order the album on iTunes and Bandcamp starting today.
There are two CD release shows: Joe’s Pub (NYC) on Oct. 6 and at Rockport, MA on October 9; both shows featuring Dave Liebman and Tiger Okoshi. Mark your calendar and purchase your tickets now – prepare yourself for not only unique and powerful but also a highly engaging concert featuring modern swing compositions with intriguing Turkish influences.
Resolution marks a major step forward for Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol, the musical polyglot, multi-instrumentalist, restless bandleader and prolific composer who writes in both contemporary classical and jazz but draws heavily from Turkish influences. His band Whatsnext? — a shape-shifting jazz orchestra that can be pared down to a combo, depending on his needs — is a force to be reckoned with, able to conform to the demands of Sanlıkol’s complex but accessible compositions and shift genres on a moment’s notice. Sanlıkol was able to recruit a roster of A-list guests to solo on the compositions of Resolution, including clarinetist Anat Cohen, soprano saxophonist Dave Liebman, trumpeter Tiger Okoshi and drummer Antonio Sanchez. Moreover, he composed their showcases with them in mind after he secured their commitments, rather than try to fit them into the music he had already completed. “I designed (the compositions) to make sure that it was these four specific artists that these pieces were written for,” he says. “This was not a project where I brought them in to blow. Absolutely not.”
The new album picks up where Sanlıkol’s What’s Next? — which Jazziz proclaimed one of the 10 best albums of 2014 — left off. The orchestra spent most of that record exploring pieces Sanlıkol had composed between 1996 and 2000; only the last composition was new, written in 2011. In the intervening years, Sanlıkol — who was born in Turkey in 1974 — immersed himself in Turkish music and began to grasp the connections between American jazz and the music of his native country. He wrote the music that populate Resolution in the summer of 2015, and more than ever before -perhaps more than anyone has done before — they point to the places where the two cultures meet.
The music of Resolution is a direct outgrowth out of Sanlıkol’s desire to learn more about the music and culture of his birthplace. During what he calls his “Turkish decade,” he studied it intently — reading about it, listening to it and, eventually, composing within its framework of Middle Eastern modes, microtones and rhythms. “When I realized that I didn’t know much about my roots, that was a big shock, and I think it triggered something in me that deep,” he says. Sanlıkol adds other cultural touchstones to the mix. Though “The Turkish 2nd Line,” the song that kicks off Resolution, is obviously steeped in the New Orleans brass band tradition, the album is filled with references to other idioms — funk, R&B, rock, ’70s fusion, reggae and Ellington-style big band, to name a few. The first movement of the album’s centerpiece, “Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Jazz Orchestra in C,” was inspired by the soundtracks of 1970s crime movies like Dirty Harry and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.
While Sanlıkol conducts the Whatsnext? ensemble, he also performs on some of the tracks. An accomplished pianist, he plays piano, harpsichord, clavinet, Moog Prodigy and other keyboards as well as Middle Eastern string and wind instruments, percussion and, the continuum fingerboard, a keyless synthesizer that allows the musician to play microtones that aren’t possible on a piano keyboard. “I overdubbed pretty much everything,” Sanlıkol says of his own playing. “If one listens carefully to the album, with all of the harpsichord, clavinet, Moog and Turkish instrumentation — they’ll notice that there is a lot of production techniques in this album.” And, to boot, he sings, a duet with vocalist Nedelka Prescod on the absolutely gorgeous “Whirl Around.”
“My return to jazz composition and the large jazz ensemble was launched by my first album, Whatsnext, which featured mostly compositions from an earlier period of my life. However, even while launching my first album I was already composing new music toward a second album that would truly reflect where I happen to be in my personal journey as a Turkish-American composer more recently. As a result, during August 2015 I will record a new jazz orchestra album with a number of internationally acclaimed guest stars in which I will premier new compositions that pair Turkish instruments such as zurna (double reed wind), ney (end-blown flute), kös (large kettledrums), nekkare (small kettledrums) and bendir (frame drum) with a 20-piece jazz orchestra to perform my Turkish music-influenced compositions. Lately, I started adding a new discovery to my already eclectic instrumentation: a Continuum Fingerboard, which is a flat-surfaced synthesizer that allows me to play the characteristic Middle Eastern microtones and ornamentations unavailable on a standard keyboard.”
“In this album project I will feature critically acclaimed clarinetist Anat Cohen, critically acclaimed drummer and composer of the Oscar-winning film “Birdman”, Antonio Sanchez, and NEA Jazz Master Dave Liebman. I grew up listening to Dave Liebman and to be able to feature him in my album is a dream coming true to say the least. And, I cannot be any more proud to have my friends Antonio and Anat to come in to play in this album as not only did we go to Berklee together but back then we had performed in a good number of projects together. All of this being said, I have approached these particular guest artists toward very specific compositions which I have customized to feature their sounds and personalities in unique Turkish music influenced settings. For example, Dave Liebman will be featured in a ‘Concerto for Soprano Saxophone in 3 movements’ in which the baroque ritornello as demonstrated in early baroque concertos would be adapted to the jazz orchestra while the rhythmic underlay would be inspired by a classical Turkish rhythmic cycle in 16 beats. Likewise, Antonio Sanchez will be featured in a suite of two movements however, this suite adapts two classical Turkish rhythmic cycles to the jazz orchestra: a 14-beat cycle named Devr-i Revan and a 6-beat cycle named Yürük Semai. This particular suite is based on a particular form of ritual which the Mevlevi Sufi (Islamic mysticism) brotherhood (the so- called “whirling dervishes”) often perform. In short, the entire album includes similar musical settings where a variety of Turkish musical traditions help create unique compositions in which soloists, traditional Turkish instruments as well as the Continuum Fingerboard are featured.”
The well-respected Jon Garelick had the following words in his review of the Whatsnext album: “Boston-based Turkish Cypriot composer and multi-instrumentalist Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol’s whatsnext? starts like a typical, very well crafted, post-bop big-band disc: fast swing, burning tenor solo, swirling background figures for brass and reeds. But before long, a Turkish accent has been laced into the music, in both the “exotic” scales and instrumentation. By the time of the minor-mode blare of horns in “Palindrome” (evoking Ottoman Janissary bands), the transformation is complete: a true fusion of jazz and folkloric Turkish language and colors.”
Before you read on, take a listen to “Better Stay Home“, a piece that would fit as the perfect film score for Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, or the magnificent “Palindrome”, which has Mehmet expending his boundless love for Turkish Folk music and blending it with innovational modern jazz; a reminder of two great films: The Great Beauty and Boyhood.
Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol said his piano lecturer mother was the first one to encourage him to learn music and he started giving piano recitals as early as age five. His interest in music grew stronger in his teenage years from listening to progressive rock, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. While exploring the influences of classical music in these bands, he later discovered and started to listen to jazz. Later on, he studied with the internationally acclaimed Turkish composer/Jazz pianist Aydın Esen and won a full scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music when he was 18. Mehmet once joked that he was not a bright student at high school since he was always thinking about music. However, everything changed after his arrival to Boston; he was one of Berklee’s most successful students and he was doing what he wanted to do the most. While at Berklee, Mehmet studied Jazz Composition with Herb Pomeroy and Ken Pullig, received The Clare Fischer Award, and completed his degree in Jazz Composition and Film Scoring. He then went on to study at the New England Conservatory where he earned a Master’s Degree in Jazz Composition and a Doctor of Musical Arts Degree in Composition.
Mehmet didn’t have any interest in Turkish music at first and used to have an “Orientalist stance” toward Turkish music. That would eventually change, a change Mehmet would name “the second biggest change in his life”. One day, he was playing the game of “Risk” with a few friends and there was mehter(the so-called “Ottoman Janissary band” music) as the enjoyable background. While Mehmet was focusing on the game, mehter music also captured his attention. He was able to comprehend the splendor of mehter.
Mehmet has served as one of the co-founders also the president of, DÜNYA, a Boston-based musicians’ alliance that promotes Turkish music and also supports cultural exchanges between Turkey and other parts of the world. DÜNYA is a musicians’ collective dedicated to contemporary presentations of Turkish traditions, alone and in interaction with other world traditions, through musical performance, publication, and educational activities. Since its founding Mehmet has produced, performed and delivered talks at over a hundred DÜNYA events. DÜNYA has also released 9 CDs, a DVD and a documentary film featuring Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol both as a director/performer and a composer. Mehmet has been on NPR and PRI several times.
In 2010, Mehmet performed and produced A Story of the City: Constantinople, Istanbul CD and concert production as a part of the Istanbul 2010 European Culture Capital activities. The 35 musicians from Boston recorded a double CD and performed the program in the 4000 seat open air Harbiye Açıkhava Tiyatrosu in Istanbul on Friday, June 18. This program explored more than a 1000 years of Istanbul’s communal memory through Greek Orthodox music, Greek folk music, Crusader songs, music of the Ottoman military ensembles, Ottoman court music, Sufi ceremonial music, Turkish folk music, Sephardic Jewish songs, urban music of the Armenians and Turks, and contemporary urban popular music.
In 2014, Mehmet was nominated for a Grammy Award for his composition “Vecd” on the album “Dreams & Prayers,” by A Far Cry, a Boston-based string orchestra. The album was nominated in the category of Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance.
From the beginning—“I was born in Istanbul however, I grew up in a city called Bursa which has been among the top five most populated cities of Turkey at least since the founding of the Turkish Republic. Bursa, since its establishment during the Hellenic era, was a major center of silk production and trade at least until the 1990s, and it was also the first capital of the Ottoman State for about 40 years during mid-14th century. Even though these specialties and its rich cultural heritage gave Bursa a prominence among the many provincial capitals of Turkey, when compared to Istanbul, only four hours away by car back in the 1980s, it felt more like an extension of the Turkish countryside. An interesting indication of this profile of Bursa was confirmed by the fact that at this time the only qualified Western classical piano teacher in the city was none other than my mother, Fethiye Sanlıkol, a Turkish Cypriot who received her training under the tutelage of British inspectors from The Royal Academy of Music. So, piano and Western classical music was always present in the house that I grew up in. In fact, Chopin, Mozart and Beethoven were far more present in my house when compared to Turkish music.”
“When I arrived in the US twenty-two years ago I decidedly left all of my Turkish cultural connections behind however, after a time, I slowly started going back to and questioning my origins in order to forge something of a self-mosaic toward a more complete version of my identity. As a result, I ‘discovered’ Turkish music as well as my voice and learned how to play all of the ethnic instruments right here in Boston starting around the year 2000.”
“Naturally, over the course of the past twenty years my music and the way I think about have evolved. However, one thing never changed. Back in 1998 when I started my Master’s degree at New England Conservatory my first lesson was with Bob Brookmeyer. If I am not mistaken this was some sort of an introductory session as there was one more student present. At some point Bob asked whether we like our own music or not. The other student’s response was along the lines of he wasn’t sure but he didn’t quite like his music. My response was loud and clear: I LOVE my music. This never changed. I love my music even when it’s not perfect. How can I not love the very thing that connects me to a higher state of spiritual existence? Bob enjoyed telling me later how much he admired my response to him that day.”
The album title of What’s Next? — “Well, What’s Next? is the name of the title track on this album and after I named the album Whatsnext it was Sue Auclair who encouraged me to name my band as Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol & Whatsnext. I am very happy with this decision for a number of reasons. First of all, the album has nine pieces on it eight of which were composed between 1996—2001.”
Self-discovery in “Palindrome” — “See, a palindrome is something — whether it’s a number, word, or something else — that reads the same way both forward and backward, like ‘madam’ or ‘radar’. It starts off quietly with ethnic instruments and just two musicians. As the music goes on, it starts becoming more and more inclusive, adding other instruments and it eventually turns into a jazz combo, with all 13 musicians. And then it ends again with quiet, ethnic instruments.”
“My journey was a bit like a palindrome: I left Turkey in 1993, at the age of 18, to study jazz at Berklee. After Berklee, I got my master’s at the New England Conservatory, and I unexpectedly rediscovered Turkish music. I think that’s portrayed, structurally, through my composition. It’s my journey of self-rediscovery by creating an evocative composition that resonated with individuals at all stages of self-discovery. As a result, both spiritually and musically Palindrome was influenced heavily by mehter as well as Sufism (Islamic mysticism).”
Completing architecture and the design in musical compositions—“It is very important to me that even before I write a single note the architecture and the design of the musical composition is complete. Instrumentation is a natural part of the process however, I try to make sure that my enthusiasm and/or commitment to the piece is fully realized in the musical composition. I hope that if my passion is fully realized in the piece it will reflect on the performers as well as the audiences eventually, if not immediately.
“The focus which is often achieved during the composition process is one that is very enriching to me. That being said, composing is a demanding process where you’re all by yourself for long durations of time. Therefore, while the meditational quality of it is enriching one needs to remember to balance it and make it a natural part of their life as much as possible.”
“Next to very many cultural themes that are associated with Turkey as well as the Near and the Middle East one of the things I like to explore is bringing certain styles of film music into my jazz compositions. For example, film noir style scoring is one that comes to mind. I think while growing up in Turkey I was exposed to a lot of Hollywood movies and, for some reason, film noir scores and main themes from a number of “cop shows” (such as Streets of San Francisco) stayed with me for all of these years.”
The importance of internalizing the cultural influences—“I only try and incorporate the influences around me into my music when I am convinced that I have internalized them. As I have explained earlier, this is very important to me. I think our only chance of being able to deal with the globality that surrounds us is by way of internalization. So, for example, I studied and performed early Western music for a long time. As a result, I am confident in my command of this particular musical language as a composer therefore, here I am exploring it in my music these days…Whatever musical influences come into my compositions this is the process they go through. As far as everything “Turkish” is concerned, I can easily say that all aspects of this phenomenon find their way into my music. Since my interpretation of the word “Turkish” is not narrow-minded, under that term I find Greek-Orthodox church music, Sephardic Jewish traditions, Armenian folk music, Turkish Psychedelic Rock among other things—all of these and more find their way into my music.”
“Recently, what characterizes my philosophy in approaching to music is a strong belief in a pluralist and a cosmopolitan modernity without reduction. The kind of globalism that surrounds and overruns us in the 21st century is a paradoxical experience which through media saturation of the musics of “the other” creates an illusion of immediacy, ubiquity and capacity. Often challenged by financial as well as identity issues it is no surprise that most musicians quickly become a part of this illusion by not internalizing instead reducing the musical languages they may be performing. I would like to believe that while reconstructing my identity during the past fifteen years in Boston I focused on the singularity of the each locale the better to link the whole. During this process I had to make room for my Cypriot roots, Western classical music I grew up with, jazz, a variety of Turkish music traditions, other world music traditions and more. It was and still is challenging to try and balance all of these realities without reducing or standardizing. However, I hope to keep after this pluralist and inclusive approach through my own cosmopolitan modernity.”
The state of jazz today — “In my opinion, Jazz is going through a period of transition. I am not sure if this transition will be similar to what Western classical music experienced when it eventually became a conservatory/concert hall music tradition. However, one thing is certain: Jazz is neither fully housed at concert halls nor at clubs simply because clubs are no longer able to provide enough opportunities for younger musicians to perform since they will loose money. It has been quite some time since Jazz has been a dominant musical style among young listeners. As a result, while there are very talented young artists emerging (in more numbers than ever before) the demand for them out there is less. On the other hand, the typical upper scale supporter of Western classical music is not all that interested in supporting jazz financially too. In my opinion, this transitionary period, in part, created the current jazz festival aesthetic in which “jazz” has become somewhat an umbrella term in order to include a variety of popular musics so that younger audiences also attend the festivals. I certainly hope that the frustration and the enormous challenges this transitionary period poses on musicians soon start becoming easier to deal with as I think that it sucks the energy out of the music quite a bit. I do remember watching a good number of jazz giants in the early 90s in Istanbul, Boston and NY, and I do remember the kind of energy that filled up the rooms back then. And I caught just the end of it… I have seen George Russell kick doors open at 8 in the morning (when he was almost 80), screaming “where is the fire in you guys? Bird had fire!” I have seen that “fire” in George and a number of others. More importantly, I have seen audiences that were caught up in that fire…”
The history of DÜNYA —“DÜNYA means ‘the world’ or ‘the globe.’ The word itself is traditionally Arabic. Over the course of many centuries and different cultures borrowing it, it’s sort of been transformed. Sometimes it may also refer to the spiritual world, but that depends on the context and culture reference. I am a Turkish Cypriot. All of my heritage goes back to the island of Cyprus.”
“Right when I was about to complete my Doctoral studies at NEC I remember hearing a colleague on NPR who was being interviewed. That was also the time when I met my wife Serap. I remember thinking to myself ‘why am I not on the air?’ that got me thinking as to how I could achieve this goal. So, I decided to establish DÜNYA and told Serap the idea. She loved my idea so we took the first step to create our organization. Of course, Robert Laberee joined us. Without my wife, Serap, our organization would not have achieved its current form. With DÜNYA, I made sure not to repeat any of the mistakes I have done when I was leading my electric jazz band in the late 90s and until 2003. I think it worked. DÜNYA is officially 11 years old now and we have 11 CDs, a DVD and a documentary film out in addition to easily over 100 concerts which we have produced on our own just in the New England area. We have toured and performed across the US as well as internationally too.”
The Musician Mehters —“I believe my book about mehter is the first significant academic study in this field since the 1960s- Haydar Sanal and Pars Tuğlacı have conducted comprehensive studies in this field. I can say my book is the most significant study after Sanal’s. Mehter is ceremonial Ottoman music rather than military music. Although the music was associated with the battlefield, it is not just all about war. As a term, mehter refers to a high-ranked servant. There used to be unofficial mehter members who played at wedding ceremonies. They used to have many other duties as well, such as accompanying the sultan outside the palace, entertaining foreign ambassadors and giving concerts to people who were promoted and honored by the sultan himself. Today, their music has become simplified, and their repertoire only features heroic ballads.”
“Having been exposed to and participated in the American big band tradition in significant ways I was quick in making a connection between the sound and the instrumentation of mehter and the American big band back in 2000. Several years later, I came to learn that the imperial mehter ensembles were imitated by the first European marching bands, which eventually gave birth to later offshoots such as the Jazz band, in replicating the distinctive ‘Turkish’ combination: several different sizes of drums, cymbals, brass and winds. A similar surprising discovery was learning how mehter music and tradition had given birth to the Zildjian company based since 1929 in Massachusetts which played an unquestionable role in creating the modern drum set while influencing the history of Jazz.”
Other interests — “Film, history and spirituality have been my major interests in life. These days I am reading a collection of Turkish shadow puppet theatre (Karagöz) plays collected in late 19th century. Lately I have been listening to the music of Monteverdi quite a bit.“
Working as an educator/scholar/researcher — “Currently, I am teaching at College of the Holy Cross and Emerson College. I am also about to wrap up my second year as a fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies where I have been researching and transcribing a number of collections from early 19th century that contain classical Ottoman/Turkish music written in Byzantine neumatic notation.”
“My teaching style is aimed at making my students think about larger cultural issues regarding musical appreciation, globalism and “world” music, the so-called ‘East and West’, etc. I often try to find unexpected ways to get them to question conventions. I may give my students a reading on the history of coffee in order to make them think about music as a cultural and social phenomenon. Always draw on your own experiences when teaching. When I was in school, a professor once told me the best examples are the ones that come from personal experience, and I’ve carried that idea throughout my years of teaching. Sometimes I play my own music in the class, or talk about my roots, and hopefully students can understand and relate to that.”
Grammy nomination and Othello — “The song ‘Vecd’ has a special story- It has two main components, ‘zikir’(dhkir in Arabic) and ‘Sema.’ Zikir generally begins with long rhythms, gradually speeds up and repeats itself. During the speeding up of the ostinato, a hafiz (Quranic chanter) reads a devotional poem. This was the concept in my mind. There is also Sema with four ‘selams’ (movements). Each selam has a different tempo. They speed up and then slow down. Instead of improvisation, the melodic phrases creating my composition are reminiscent of a Sema ceremony. This was my first Grammy nomination. It was great to be attending the ceremony with my wife and parents. The part that was not televised was even more special since the majority of the awards are given during that particular segment.”
“We have been calling Othello in the Seraglio a ‘coffeehouse opera’. The idea has been with me for about four to five years by now. However, we just premiered it and did eight performances of this unique opera which bridges the musical cultures of opera house and coffee house, Baroque Italy and Ottoman Turkey. We are hoping that this love story draws the audiences into a meditation on race, slavery, sexuality and the entwined histories of Europe and the Middle East. The opera follows the unique baroque model of an opera pasticcio where music from 16th and 17th century European and Turkish sources were arranged, adapted and woven together with original music by myself. This unique music drama is performed on European period instruments and traditional Turkish instruments by an ensemble of specialists in those fields.”
“On the other hand, I am now getting started to work on my new commission from Carnegie Hall for the American Composers Orchestra. The piece will be about 10-12 minutes long and will feature myself on the oud and with my voice as the soloist. I have selected a poem from a late 19th/early 20th c. Bektashi Sufi dervish, Edib Harabi. The premiere will be on April 1, 2016.”
The Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol & Whatsnext: The Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol & Whatsnext eight-piece band features — Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol on piano, keyboards, continuum, zurna, ney, and voice, Jerry Sabatini on trumpet, flugel horn, Aaron Henry on tenor & soprano sax, Chris Gagne on trombone, Utar Artun on piano, keyboards, Fernando Huergo on electric bass, Engin Kaan Gunaydin on drums, and George Lernis on kettledrums, frame drums, percussion.”