It should be mentioned before anything else that it isn’t likely to see a musician with a Turkish nationality or background in the famous jazz magazine Downbeat, known and respected not only in the States but worldwide. I would like to apologise if I forgot to mention anyone; the last one I remember was Burak Bedikyan’s Circle of Life CD, which received a high note in the CD critique section. When I started reading the September issue (the magazine issues are released a month earl, most probably as a necessity of global distribution, and digital subscribers like me also receive the issues early) I was surprised to notice an advertisement of Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol’s new CD, called Resolution, which was to be released on the 23rd of September, as well as seeing this same album as one of the CDs mentioned in “Pick of the Editor” section on the magazine’s internet page. Such news of course stirred my curiosity, and since this CD wasn’t released yet, I bought and listened to the digital version of Sanlıkol’s previous work Whatsnext (I preferred to translate this as ‘Sonrası’—meaning ‘Next’ in the title of this article), which he dedicated to Aydın Esen.
I started listening to Whatsnext, thinking that I was listening to a musician whose “previous” history I had no knowledge about (though, after some time I realised that Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol was the arranger and a band member in Audio Fact’s Black Spot album, produced by Aydın Esen, and that since I had this album in my library I did have some “previous” knowledge about Sanlıkol after all). My first observations were concerned about the arrangements and the formation of the band. It wasn’t exactly a Big Band, but what is called a “jazz combo”, a band that consists of 10-12 members, and the arrangements this band played with an academical discipline, combined with several compositions which could be considered unusual were particularly impressive. More importantly, the musician I had listened to in Audio Fact’s Black Spot album, which I already had in my music library and had mentioned above, and the musician I had listened to in Whatsnext were fundamentally very different from one another. I realised, especially after listening to two pieces, that Sanlıkol has wandered away from the “black hole” (Black Spot) concept deep within the space, and came closer to a more “local” and “historical” musical topography and had started to compose with Ottoman musical traditions in mind. I have to mention that this realisation came about with an element of “surprise” to me. I know, I should be focusing on his latest album Resolution, which came out recently, but it isn’t quite possible to understand where a music person comes from and what their deal is without looking at their “previous” work. Yes, Sanlıkol is a person with a serious deal; the deepest and hardest one. One has to contemplate on the name of his albums, deliberate on the names of his pieces and deconstruct them.
In this sense, I believe two pieces in Whatsnext are especially important. Let’s start with the piece called “A Violent Longing”, which could be translated into Turkish as “Eflatunî Hasret”. Purple, the symbolic color of the ruling class in Rome, became especially privatised in Eastern Rome, Byzantine Empire, after the collapse of Western Rome and transformed into a color reserved only for the tyrants, called “Tyrian Purple”. Before moving on, we have to remember that one of Sanlıkol’s previous CDs is called “A Story of the City: Constantinople”. Now “longing” is gaining more meaning, and modal sounds point to the fact that the longing belongs to this cultural and historical geography. However; we have to particularly focus on the piece called Palindrome, which Sanlıkol emphasised as his next album Resolution’s “core” composition during the interview I made with him. I don’t believe that we can enter Sanlıkol’s world of ideas without deliberating on the meaning of the word ‘Palindrome’ first. That is because “Palindrome” means a word, or a group of words, that give the same meaning when read from left to right, right to left, even from top to bottom; for example, the word “makam” (meaning “mode”) or “anastas mum satsana” (meaning “anastas go and sell candles”) have the same meaning when read from left to right and from right to left. This idea that the start is the same as the end hints to a deep philosophical perspective (which can be called sufism in simpler terms). After all, life and music might be nothing other than a continuous “cycle” and motions that follow one another. The beginning and the ending of his music life, his career as a composer and musician, is becoming similar to “stopping points” where musical concepts and ideas meet and possibly reconcile during this decision making process. Yes, continuously making way, sometimes stopping for a while to catch the breath, possibly converge, yet still continuing on walking, knowing that the path only leads back to the beginning, and maybe making a “decision” to wander around in the same “cycle” and to delve deeper into it. And while having the same exact question in mind: what’s “next”? The process this question makes while compounding, a philosophical standpoint that could be called its intensification and a brave determinism.
I am sure you are confused at this point, but be assured that there is noone in this country who does not get confused when music (or let’s call it “musıkimiz”—meaning ‘our music’— in our language) and culture in its background (or “medeniyet dairemiz”—‘our center of civilization’—) are mentioned. In order to make what was mentioned more comprehensible, it would be beneficial to take a closer look at the CD cover of Resolution, which is our main topic. Cem Eskinazi is a Turkish graphic artist who lives in the States, and he has also designed the cover art of Sanlıkol’s previous album (Whatsnext), and therefore is possibly familiar with his world of ideas. Sanlıkol told me that Eskinazi chose a design that revolved around the philosophical meaning of “cycle”.
I believe that these interlocking circles are nothing other than a “palindrome”. The spheres that are located above, around, and even in the orbit of the palindrome can be regarded as a cultural contemplation (“idea-comprehension-giving meaning”). Or, what do you think that “half conic shape” is? A symbolic expression of the beginning or the end. A “half answer” that fails to become a whole, fails to achieve a completion. Ultimately, if the “half” doesn’t remain futile, would there be any strength left to follow the path? Sanlıkol is more concerned with the question, with the path itself, do not be fooled by the idea that there may ever be exact answers.
Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol has given a comprehensive and long interview to İbrahim Türk after his composition “Vecd” was nominated for the Grammy Award for “the best composition” in 2015. I would suggest listening to this interview, which was recorded to be broadcasted on an internet radio channel in the States (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oq1V6UZ8bdQ), if you would like to get to know Sanlıkol better. If you listen attentively to this comprehensive interview, you will learn about Sanlıkol’s family, the city he grew up in, his earlier works, how jazz was introduced in his life, how he met Aydın Esen on his path to Berklee, where he attended at a very young age, and the stages of his professional and academic career in the States. I will leave that part to your own interest for this reason, and return to my own interest, the details I can relay from the long interview I have made with Sanlıkol.
I would not be exaggerating at all if I stated that the turning point in Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol’s career in music (therefore his life) came while playing a strategy game (“Risk”) with three of his friends in the States. One of his friends jokingly starts to play “mehter” marches for fun, because it goes well with the “soul” of Risk, which is a combat-strategy game, and keeps these marches going for the rest of their playing session. It is evident that this gives birth to an interesting situation for a musician. Imagine, Sanlıkol, a Berklee graduate, is about to complete his graduate studies in New England Conservatory and is getting ready to start his doctorate work at the same institution. Looking at his career as a jazz musician, he has already played with famous musicians in great clubs, and is already at a level to be able to participate twice in the Istanbul Jazz Festival. That moment during that game of Risk is the longest time period that he is exposed to this military music, which is classified as “kaba saz” (as opposed to “incesaz”, a type of Turkish music performed with traditional instruments that had not peaked his interest before). He is unable to leave because the game isn’t over yet, and as a musician he cannot help but listen. In his own terms, he starts to listen to “mehter” music seriously for the first time in his life. He lets go of all the reservations he had against this genre until that day, and gets lost in the image and sounds of the “mehter” musicians, their traditional clothes, moustaches, screams and listens to the music in its most naked form. Two of the marches especially grab his attention; Estergon and Genç Osman. I am directly quoting from the interview:
“What really got me was Genç Osman (‘Young Osman’). Its mode is called “müstear”. What is interesting about that mode is that it is not a decision point between the Western ear, what we call the tonic note and listen to vertically, and the Turkish music—it is different. Many modes aren’t like this, the notes of both types of music can overlap [Meaning Western and Ottoman musics] but in some modes the implications of the vertical and the horizontal are different… Genç Osman is a eight-bar melody, it ends right away. It isn’t like one of those long Western style pieces either. That tonic note can be heard when they chant “Allah Allah” but it isn’t seen in under the scale! How is this possible? I started hearing specific instruments as I fixated on this. I told myself, wow, listen to how majestic those zurnas sound (a type of shrill pipe)! Listen to those drums. They are almost more energetic than a Big Band! That night something had happened to me, I lay in bed, and I heard the drums in my head throughout the night, I could not stop the melody! Genç Osman was playing on repeat in my head. I still remember, I had a private lesson with John Abercrombie and I asked him so many questions. Have you hear something like this, where is its tonic note? He was playing them with guitar, showing me. The whole lesson went on like this. I realized something after the lesson. I had been so unaware of the music and culture of the country I have lived in for so long, I had learnt nothing from it!”
The turning point happens following that fateful night, and he takes a ten year break from jazz and focuses on Ottoman music and culture. He set his mind on this so decisively that he would convince his teachers in New England Conservatory, where he was to start his doctorate studies in the composition department, to let him change the topic of his thesis to ethnomusicology and would enrol in Harvard for a period to learn Ottoman language in order to fulfil the three language prerequisite for these studies, the other two being Turkish and English. He would learn how to play several Ottoman instruments, and not forget about vocal techniques, incorporating the traditional style singing methods to his doctorate studies.
His desire to compose new pieces would stir again after the ten year break, but this time it has been transformed into many different colors and choices in form and character. The first fruit of this would be his 2014 album Whatsnext. It wouldn’t be wrong to state that the ten year break that Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol took wasn’t for nothing, and he took a successul turn in his career, because one of the most important jazz magazines Jazziz named Whatsnext one of the ten best jazz albums released that year. Resolution only reinforces this success. Because this album not only attracted the amount of attention I mentioned earlier even before it was released, but also proves us that we are face to face with a unique and new jazz musician who combines his own style with his unique jazz sound. Since I have had the chance to listen to the album before its release, I can speak from honest experience. Sanlıkol says that this attention isn’t due to the album’s nature as an example of “Turkish Jazz” or due to some “pattern and formula”; on the contrary, it is a result of an musically multilingual jazz composition effort.
It is so evident that this transformation is a result of extraordinary effort, and the process that leads to Resolution is paved with both its personal and objective results. For example, Sanlıkol has never played Turkish music, and he couldn’t contain his happiness when he was telling me the details about how to formulate partitions with clear position indicators on top, and how to write microtones and commas for a wind instruments group. Near the end of the interview, when I provocatively asked him how he was able to recruit four musicians on top of their music careers (Anat Cohen, Dave Liebman, Tiger Okoshi and Antonio Sanchez) to record for Resolution, he rightfully convinced me by telling me about his own career, the schools he has studied in, his schoolmates, and shortly the milestones in his jazz career. He also shed some light to the reason of the incredible performances of these musicians by explaining how he made “custom-made” compositions, keeping in mind each of there musicians personal styles after they accepted to play in this album, instead of composing beforehand.
I asked him why Downbeat and Jazztimes, two important and honest, maybe even arrogant, magazines that do not play favorites, noticed Resolution at the same time, and I think Sanlıkol’s reply to me is very important when the discussions about jazz in Turkey are concerned. He actually didn’t give a direct reply, but he explained his efforts to learn Ottoman Turkish music and culture, and explained how “effort-intensive” it is to reach “real” music. He was very humble when he said that it was not possible to attain new and real music without learning about Ottoman culture, knowing its modes, larning how to play its traditional instruments, understand its vocal techniques, or knowing its language well enough to understand its lyrics; he explained that this was a process that would last years, and the more you learn the more you realize how little knowledge you have. Ultimately, he said that this is a “lifestyle choice”. I felt very humbled by his dervish-like austerity as a music person who has decided on a path and goal, and started moving towards it, thinking he is only starting at it.
I asked Sanlıkol another provocative question at the end of the long interview, asking could there be such a thing as “Turkish Jazz” when discussions about jazz in Turkey are concerned and for my own academic interest. I especially asked him if the “multilingual” aspect of his own music had anything to do with Turkish Jazz. We initially exchanged ideas as to how to name his music and came to a conclusion and agreement that it is a “multilingual” and “multicultural” type of jazz that is influenced by Ottoman high culture (‘Enderun’ or Palace School and royal court), shaped by contemporary classical music genres, and written and composed using jazz writing techniques. Sanlıkol’s approach to the topic of Turkish Jazz was backed by a grounded intellectual standpoint and a serious musician sensibility. He first approached the subject with the theoretic point and said why shouldn’t there be something called Turkish Jazz if there is such things as Anadolu Rock (or Turkish Rock) or Norwegian Jazz. He then gave the example of Özer Ünal’s Allı Turnam, a piece he has listened to recently. He said that he was pleasantly surprised to hear a jazz piece filled with Turkish sounds at such an early date [the 1970s], and that we can of course talk about such a thing as Turkish Jazz when there are such examples. He emphasized that the years-long works of Erkan Oğur, who is an important musician, could be collected under this genre as well.
About the album: You will witness a surprising dialogue between jazz and “çiftetelli” (a traditional Turkish dance music with 4/4 rhythm) during “Turkish 2nd Line”, which is the first track of the album. Sanlıkol drew my attention to the similarities between what we call “çiftetelli” and New Orleans festival music, and said that he was surprised when he realized that the same rhythm walked in almost the same steps, and that he thought starting off the album with such a fun piece would be a good choice. We see a more romantic Sanlıkol who has embellished “A Dream in Nihavent” with vocals, and “mehter” music rises with all its majesty during “A Jazzed Up Devr-i Revan”. I think “Whirlaround” is probably the most fun piece in the album and is the most “whole” piece as far as their objectives go; it gets as rhythmic as a 1970s fusion piece in parts, but has the underlying reference to Mevlevi (whirling dervish) rituals. It is an accessible, rhythmic and overall great composition. Of course, these are all my personal opinions. But one thing is for certain. Resolution is a high quality project which is filled with pieces that nurture themselves with Ottoman-Turkish traditions, but still remain global instead of getting stuck with being local, have reflections of cultural chaos, problems, worries and joys as they find expression in contemporary music. It has been designed as an “open text” from its cover to the layout of the tracks. It fully deserves a good “reader” and qualified “ listener.
Final Note: I received an informative note from Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol after I have sent the final edit of this article to him for his approval regarding the album. I think this should be included in the archive so I am adding this information to this article.
“I noticed something that I have overlooked earlier—it isn’t that important but I am writing this to you because I think you might enjoy this “short story”. The release date of the album is the 23rd of September [the article specified this as the 24th of September]. We would be skipping over something important if this date remains as the 24th of September in the article, because “Resolution” has a mystical connection with John Coltrane that should be explained… I quoted the second part’s theme of Coltrane’s Love Supreme, as many jazz musicians do, during a zurna solo in Afro Semai [one of the pieces in the album]. I didn’t think of the fact that this second part is called “Resolution” at that point… What is even more odd is that Concerto [a three-part piece in the album] was recorded then and its parts were already named. However, I hadn’t decided on the album’s title yet. When I finally decided on the album’s title, influenced by Concerto, which symbolizes my personal journey, I hadn’t still realized my quote during that zurna solo came from Coltrane’s Resolution…
About a month after I had decided on the album’s title Don Lucoff, who is the owner of [PR firm] DL Media suggested the 23rd of September as the release date, because an album has to be officially released before the 30th of September in order to be eligeable for Grammy Award considerations. When he suggested this date I told him “Great, and that date is my birthday as well. I was born a few hours before midnight on the 23rd of September, but when the nurses came it was already the 24th. My mother told me that’s why my birthday was recorded as the 24th of September… The following day it suddenly dawned on me: 23rd of September is also Trane’s birthday and in addition to giving my album the name Resolution, I quoted Trane’s Resolution during Afra Semai without noticing! Interesting, isn’t it? Who knows?…”