Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol was in Bursa to attend Dr. Hüseyin Parkan Sanlıkol Museum of Musical Instruments that has been opened to commemorate his father’s memory. He gave a concert the same evening as a part of the organization. Sanlıkol played the piano and ney as well performing the vocals as he was accompanied by Kağan Yıldız on the bass and George Lernis on the drums and gong. The trio performed pieces from “An Elegant Ritual” album.
You have been writing pieces for orchestras for a long time. Did you miss recording with a trio?
Maybe telling the process I went through would answer this question. Ultimately, some practical concerns affect such decisions. To be honest, budgets cannot always handle bigger bands. Similar to how it works outside America, the budgets for bringing a combo of twelve members differ from bringing three, four or even five musicians together here in Boston. We have been playing as a trio or a quartet irregularly for years. I wrote some of the pieces in this album, for example ‘The 7th Day’ or ‘Lost Inside’ around 2001. There are other twenty-years old compositions. I used to play these occasionally as a trio or a quartet.
Can we include the lack of suitable venues as a part of these practical reasons? I guess it isn’t easy to play with a band with twelve members in venues other than the few concert halls we know.
I cannot say that this matters much because we don’t have many venues left to play anything properly, really! There are only two proper jazz clubs in Boston. Other than this, there are some gallery-style venues we previously performed in but they aren’t the same as clubs. The system works like this: First you pay, and maybe you can make some profit out of this initial payment depending on how many people show up! There isn’t anybody left to play for the 50-100 dollars they would earn out of this anyways. If there is, I am not one of them.
Let me rephrase that. You teach at the university; it looks like the work you have done with the orchestra seems to have evolved in an academic direction. It seemed like being a composer was emphasized.
You could say that. I have always been known first as a composer in Boston. The main reason why I found myself in the New England Conservatory after graduating from Berklee in 1993 was the fact that I was a composer and not a touring jazz musician. I was a proper “jazz musician” for a period with Audiofact in 1997-2002 where I toured with them… But as I mentioned, I have a considerable past with the trio as well. The orchestra works were put on hold due to the pandemic, so I thought this was a suitable environment to work on this trio album. We had practiced playing with gongs and similar earlier, so I only had to bring together our individual experimentations.
“Audiofact” took me down the memory lane. They got quite the attention back then.
Yes, in Turkey. There were even fans of the band who hung out with us. We were penniless, of course… This provoked a dark feeling about the future. My academic career hadn’t started then. The fact that such a beloved band couldn’t make money pushed me into despair. I kept spending out of my own pocket. Of course, I was surrounded by musicians such as Bob Brookmeyer, George Russell, John Abercrombie and Paul Bley who I interacted with… Given this situation, you see that that project was delving deeper into darkness rather than climbing to the top. It was inevitable for me to bring an end to Audiofact… I started doing trio and quartet projects back then, but it still seemed lacking. This was the period when I got to know about ‘Mehter’ music. I focused on Turkish music. There was a great gap there and this caused me to question my identity. I wrote small compositions when I occasionally played with the trio during my years of searching. I found myself unexpectedly in Paris once, and we played at Ryles, which is now closed. The trio was taking shape, but this all happened slowly.
Turkish music and orchestra projects are very demanding; we can see that you have worked on them for many years…
Yes, for example Dave Liebman commissioned The Rise Up recently, it is a big project… I tried to find the funds. We all apply to the same authorities, including Maria Schneider. Copeland Fund, for example… There are five institutions that provide funding for jazz musicians in America. We aren’t a small community either. This group of people includes Emilio Solla, Darcy James Argue. I finally got funding from three different places, it was like a miracle, but The Rise Up took much of my time. Then the pandemic happened, and years had passed.
Back to the subject of your trio; you deal with the ney, vocals, piano or orchestration yourself, for example in continuum. All of these become your responsibility when you cannot find a musician in the caliber you are looking for to work with. However, I observed that this could create a problem for the trio format during the concerts. You compromise on the piano when you pick up the ney. Therefore every new instrument could limit the music as much as it expands its horizon.
These are all astute observations; it is impossible to come up with a counter-argument. However, I see this situation as being bi-lingual; musicians need mastery over two musical languages in our day. As you know, I always have a second pianist in bigger groups. I pass the piano over, for example, if I am playing Continuum. I prepare something like a Hammond partition for the other musician if I am playing the piano. I play the ney in two pieces in this album and I wrote the pieces with the limitations you mentioned in mind. However, I will agree with you here again, I cannot attain what I achieved in ‘An Elegant Ritual’s album recording during the live performances. It isn’t easy. We recorded live on the album as well and decided on the third take. I am sure it will be great if we can play ten more concerts. Isn’t this limiting, well yes, this approach won’t create an album, but you can get away with it if you use it in two pieces like this. You can pull a rabbit out of the hat twice, but the third attempt is tough, meaning similar pieces can be added depending on the development of the trio or the gongs can be emphasized but the balance will be more and less like it is now.
How important is jazz for you, speaking two musical languages? Can you give jazz up? For example, can you say that your music won’t feature Western instruments and I will focus on Turkish music and gamelans? Or is this a path you wouldn’t choose?
As you know, I compose Classical Western Music as well. I don’t have such ideas in my mind when I am writing that; I don’t contemplate on such things. I wrote an opera; Othello in the Seraglio, this might sound very different to you. The two main elements there are the traditions of Ottoman Turkish music and early European music, namely early Baroque and Renaissance. The group that performed this work didn’t even have a harpsichord; I focused on the combinations of old trombones and Turkish strings such as çeng. I toured with Boston Camerata for ten years and I performed both early European music pieces as well as various Ottoman Turkish music pieces. Which other jazz musician is active as I am in both these genres? Early music has a lot of religious elements, such as choir music etc., and I thought I could connect that to Turkish music through the traditions of Islamic memorial service called ‘mevlit’. I have recordings of such experiments in two maqams. This is a really good example of how to approach music academically. There is no jazz or piano there, therefore I am not limited. But in the specifics of gamelan; I didn’t encounter a fusion as you mentioned. I did try, by the way… There is the Cava gamelan orchestra in Tufts, and I brought them to the Intercultural Institute in New England Conservatory where I was the director of. They gave a concert and a workshop, it was great. We couldn’t get over some practical aspects and this wasn’t long-lived. Also, life takes you to different places; you come across things or you miss them. The gongs in ‘An Elegant Ritual’ exist only because George was open to that. It wouldn’t be possible to make such a project without him, because he said that he was financially and mentally ready to do the compromise needed when I told him I wanted to combine gongs with the drum kit in my new compositions. That’s how we got ahold of the gongs slowly. But I didn’t push myself to write something in the jazz language, This was the result of my work of fifteen years as I mentioned before. What I have in mind ideally is to take a fully equipped gamelan orchestra, combine it with a Turkish music ensemble of four or five members, the infrastructure being based in Turkish music. Ultimately, the works in this album preserve this combination and vision in a miniature scale.
It is a bit early to ask this question… However, do you think your work can become a school of its own? Do you need to have students, find a department? Do you have any worries about the future or can we say that somebody will pick up the torch?
I am not worried, but I naturally have some thoughts about the future. I am not yet worried about somebody continuing the sound I have created. Everybody who plays in my bands respects me and I heard many compliments about my music but only a few know about Turkish music; it isn’t possible for them to take the torch from me and take it further. But I have these ideals: I have always wanted to make week-long camps or workshops, now it is possible thanks to the museum. What I want to achieve the most there is to bring young musicians talented in Turkish music with new jazz musicians and for the artists who perform Turkish music to interpret the solos I choose. For example, A ‘kemençe’ player can perform Miles’s solo in So What, even if the E flat bits can become a bit trying… Ultimately, there are such pieces and I will choose these; and musicians who play stringed tambour, oud, etc. will do the transcription of 10 different pieces. On the other hand, jazz musicians will practice playing pieces by Niyazi Sayın, Tanburi Cemil or similar musicians that I choose as long as their instruments allow them to; of course, this puts the piano or guitar to a disadvantage. Then everybody will get on the stage and play simultaneously with the recording, similar to what I do here at school… All these pieces will transform into a bi-lingual concert at the end. We do this together with friends… For example, Bulut Gülen’s graduate studies at NEC took place when I was teaching there. He is my friend and I can’t call him my student even though he did take my classes. He was already a good musician but he learnt maqams from me… We played preludes and ‘saz semai’ together using the traditional forms on the ney and the trombone for his finishing recital. But we only were able to do it with Bulut and vocalist Burcu Güleç… Very rare occasions. I want us to be fifteen or twenty musicians; that would enable radical changes. I hope we can achieve these in Bursa. I have to mention; George is different in this sense as he is very knowledgeable about the styles and such. He has been playing with my traditional music ensemble for more than ten years. He is currently working on his album, I am sure these experiences will carry traces in that. He doesn’t have Islam in his upbringing but he is really into this music.
About the trio again… The venues are reopening slowly after the pandemic. What are your expectations about the live performances of this project?
We can talk about this in the specifics of both the trio and in the general sense. Lydia Leibman does my PR, Dave’s daughter. She used to be my student, I have been working with her for some years now. She became a great professional in the music field but even her efforts are not enough. I am not sure how successful trios will be during this pandemic period. We have concerts in Boston with ‘The Rise Up’ coming up and some work in New York in February. We might end up visiting other places in-between according to the pandemic restrictions. Say five gigs… Imagine playing only five times a month! This isn’t beneficial to the music or the musician. On the other hand, I think I am lucky. I hold a good position in one of the most famous conservatories in the world, I can make these albums and I hope I will become high profile in the future. The number of new albums on the market right now are dizzying, let alone my trio’s. This used to be the case in the past as well, I know personally that Boston Globe’s music editors would receive about a hundred CDs a day and they would throw some away without opening them. This is such a cruel situation. What chance does Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol stand among 50 CDs? And my music is complex on top of that…
This isn’t the type of music that everybody can grasp right away; the publication and its peers move in accordance to the American market.
This isn’t a reproval of the critics; it is just what the situation is like. The same applies to me. How much can I internalize a musician who created something symbiotic in a music genre I am not familiar with? Everybody has a limit to how much new music they can listen to each day. How are you going to distinguish yourself? It is tough even if you are Dave Liebman… I made a decision initially as an experienced musician; I thought we might flunk if I put him in a 15-minute-long piece based on maqams. He doesn’t know maqams after all. If somebody would say “should this note be more flat” for a ‘rast’ maqam, for example… Everybody would be angry if I said something about the Blues. Our music is filled with nuances. Refined examples haven’t been produced for years due to ignoring these nuances. It is all about listening. Ultimately, I prepared a more traditional type of big band for Liebman. Isn’t that beautiful in itself though? Mehmet Ali hasn’t forgotten about this style either… Things took a different turn as we played more concerts with Liebman and he saw what I can do with zurna and kös. This means having mastery over music can only happen through listening to the pieces live and to spend time on them even for a prominent musician such as Dave Liebman. How will I be noticed with a music with such hard aspects? Lydia has been preparing press kits and sending them off; I have been lucky on occasion. Neil Tesser wrote a profile article for Jazziz magazine and an album critique in Jazz Times after that. These don’t mean much yet but there is more to come…
Any interest from the European festivals?
I am Turkish but I am in America, so if they were to fly me out that would be from Boston and this has always been a handicap for Europe. That’s why they prefer to bring famous musicians from America. It all boils down to this again: You need to show up in the critics’ questionnaire on DownBeat and then move upwards from there. I will also mention here that festivals sometimes come up with offers such as “Bring three musicians from there and we will provide the rest of the band members” because I am not yet a big name. This makes things tough because it isn’t easy to prepare for a concert doing a couple of rehearsals with musicians who are not used to these challenging arrangements. It needs to be understood that this isn’t merely about bringing different instruments together or play synchronously. I am trying to move beyond that; I can say I created a sound unique to myself. For example, there is nobody else who includes zurna in the big band with its own separate part. It took me years to get there.
What you mentioned touches upon the topic of releasing an album through a well-known label… Though I am not so sure how relevant the concept of big companies are these days.
This is another vital point. Columbia, Motema and Blue Note are still big. Those similar to SteepleChase cannot break that threshold yet. However, independent labels have been receiving more Grammy awards in recent years. I dissected this topic personally with The Rise Up. The album has two producers; Kabir Sehgal and Doug Davis, son of the famous producer Clive Davis… Kabir Sehgal is the producer of Ted Nash, Arturo O’Farrill and similar musicians who received Grammy awards in the past 6 years. Kabir included me in a project with Billy Cobham and Gil Goldstein as a performer and composer. That’s how we met. I don’t know which method is correct… Jazz is already in a transformation process, music platforms constantly change. Rather than staying independent, my mistake can be that I waited a long time in-between my albums. However, I might not have the sound I have today if I did it otherwise.
I think it would be great to have an album that is reminiscent of Resolution.
Yes there was a long pause but I was commissioned a piece by Carnegie Hall back then, an opera, and other projects got in the way. As I mentioned before, The Rise Up took several years to complete. Liebman had told me “I want you to create a music that is a mix of Jewish and Turkish with a jazz infrastructure while also having a narration and a story”. Doesn’t sound easy, does it!
You mentioned your video works before, how do these relate to music?
Yes, I frequently make videos and find these important in creating visibility. I have always been interested in cinematography. I improved my abilities in this sense a lot during the pandemic. I actually have a degree in film music from Berklee, but I didn’t want to go to Los Angeles back then. Adventurous composers like myself have no place there. I didn’t want to start out as a “ghost composer”. But I love the concept of films, I don’t write for them but I investigate, I also give classes on it. For example, Spartacus is a great movie, of course, but what surprises me about it is the fact that somebody in Hollywood actually wrote such a score once… It is unbelievable. The first movie in the series of The Planet of The Apes is written entirely in 12-tones by Jerry Goldsmith, which is rather surprising as well. Anyways, what I mean is that a jazz musician is broke; they work with whoever is the cheapest in the business if they want to make a video, which ends up flopping. Most videos I have watched have no discernable characteristic; they are mostly basic montages. Phone cameras are very advanced these days and social media has become an important platform. A certain standard can even be achieved with mobile phones and popular programs used for montage. My work is very different compared to that. My daughter is 14 years old, and we started shooting videos together. I have two Professional cameras, various lenses, a variety of accessories and a great light system. I do my own montage as well. It is not a great situation as so much time goes into these while also working on music. This is what the conditions require.
So being a musician isn’t enough on its own…
The power of music is not enough to overcome obstacles on its own.
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