Review: Vitrin at Istanbul Jazz Festival

Andy Hamilton visited the Istanbul Jazz Festival's showcase event, Vitrin, and was rewarded with performances at venues across two continents

With Turkish Mambo, Blue Rondo À La Turk and the entire album Turkish Women At The Bath, Lennie Tristano, Dave Brubeck and Pete La Roca respectively followed Mozart in appropriating Turkish music, as they heard it.

Turkish jazz, however, has a low profile outside its native country – I'd say Okay Temiz is the only musician known in the West. Vitrin, a showcase event now in its second year, seeks to rectify that situation.

Part of the Istanbul Jazz Festival, Vitrin presents prominent artists from the Turkish and regional scene, including neighbours such as Azerbaijan. I'd never visited the country, and Turkish jazz is not something I knew about. Unsurprisingly, it turns out, for a country of 80 million historically in close contact with Western culture, the jazz scene is thriving.

Istanbul Jazz Festival is now in its 25th year – it's the only jazz festival with venues in both Europe and Asia. The main theme of this review is the range of East-West fusions – or maybe better, Turkish and non-Turkish fusions – that Turkish musicians presented. My first night featured gigs and concerts in venues across the Bosphorus in Asia Minor (Anatolia). The highlight was multi-instrumental trio Islandman (pictured above right), described as "sounds of Anatolian psychedelic" – dance floor beats with psychedelic-oriented guitar and synth riffs, the genre of the moment. Their debut album, Rest In Space, appeared in 2017. The combination of Western rhythms with Turkish folk sounds is, as one colleague suggested, like hearing Irish jigs to dance beats. The result, for younger Turkish audiences – and this listener – is very appealing.

There was little Turkish content in the music of jazz singer Sibel Demir (pictured left), born in Istanbul in 1991. She got side-tracked by jazz, while continuing her studies as an opera singer. Her programme was thoughtful, featuring sensitive interpretations of Night In Tunisia, Triste, Blue Skies and Well You Needn't. Jazz vocal versions of My Favourite Things aren't common, in my experience, and this was an appealing one – just enough of a Coltrane influence to make us forget Julie Andrews and recognise the real possibilities of the song.

The second night featured concerts at the Zorlu Centre, in Beşiktaş on the European side of Istanbul. In the Studio, well-known Turkish drummer Ediz Hafızoğlu continued his Nazdrave sequence, described in the programme as "jazz, hiphop", but more like Turkish folk sounds to jazz-rock club beats. The set featured a reflective vocalist and offered shades of Herbie Hancock's jazz-fusion period. But for me, the thwack of the leader's bass drum was too visceral and dominant.

In the main festival, long-time partners Dave Holland, Chris Potter and Zakir Hussain formed a stellar world-music trio. Their 90-minute set kicked off with Holland's Lucky Seven, featuring Potter on soprano sax, who turned to tenor for his own Island Feeling, a blues in 7/4 – he doesn't indulge in much quotation, his solo referred to If I Only Had A Brain. J Vibe – I think that's the title – by Hussain, was dedicated to his former employer in Shakti, John McLaughlin. These are amazing players and the music is very free and loose; the concert hall sound system was superb. But perhaps, despite his formidable musicianship, Chris Potter is too much of a mainstream jazzer for a world-music project.

Vitrin Matineé saw the highlight of the festival for me, the haunting music of the quartet Caravan from Anatolia, led by Coşkun Karademir (kopuz, also bağlama), with Emre Sinanmis (duduk), Murat Sungu (cello) and Omer Arslan (percussion). Karademir writes music for Turkish TV, but let's not hold that against him. Drawing on sufi and minstrel traditions, Karademir is a virtuoso of Anatolia’s folk lute, the bağlama, an instrument similar to the bouzouki. Anatolia is rich in Greek, Turkish-Ottoman and Armenian influences, which here included the duduk, an Armenian wind instrument with a beautifully veiled sound. This was a delicately and subtly realised fusion, whose Western elements included use of the cello and a jazz-like drum kit. Karademir's previous albums include Kuşların Çağrısı (The Call of Birds) with Iranian singer Masha Vahdat, and Endless Path. The Caravan quartet's new album, Essence, will be released later this year, featuring compositions from a range of sources including King Alfonso X of Castile and the Ottoman Sultan Abdulaziz. I'm eagerly anticipating it.

Vitrin Matineé also featured Ercüment Gül (pictured right), born in 1981 in Istanbul. Although the guitarist says he was inspired by master Erkan Oğur to express the mysticism in Turkish music, this pleasant jazz-rock fusion didn't seem to have much clear Turkish content. We later caught the mentor himself at Sakıp Sabancı Museum Terrace, a beautiful venue overlooking the Bosphorus, near the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. Erkan Oğur is probably the leading Turkish jazz guitarist, featured here with his quartet. His student Ercüment Gül could maybe learn one further thing from Oğur – the master's set was beautifully-paced, with subtle use of dynamics. Oğur has a beautiful tone, which he varies, as well as creating effects. He uses a double-necked electric guitar with one neck fretless, the other fretted, as well as an acoustic guitar for more reflective pieces.

In terms of fusion, the most Turkish-sounding of the groups was Karademir; Oğur was mid-way, and Gül more Western. Opening for Oğur was leading Azerbaijan pianist, Shahin Novrasli, whose trio featured Felicity Cabrera (Cuba) on bass and Josselin Hazard (France) on drums. This was powerful, exciting, virtuosic music in the romantic piano tradition – a Rachmaninov of jazz, perhaps.

Associated with Vitrin were two panels on the music industry in Turkey and how local artists can become known on the international arena. Bands must be "market-ready", argued Derek Andrews, Toronto artistic director, who commented that culture is soft power and promoters must be aware of how their music is used politically. Israeli artistic director Hadas Vanunu commented that bands must have at least a year's experience together; with only a hundred likes on Facebook, unless they are superb musicians, "it's probably not going to work". However, one Lebanese oud player had no recordings, but promoters booked her because they were blown away by her playing. Outgoing Istanbul festival director Pelin Opcin described her as lucky: "There were people with good ears in the audience". As Andrews commented, "You're looking for excellence, first and foremost". It was good to hear these anti-populist sentiments in an era when subjectivism is dominant.

Finally, the elephant in the room – politics. In Turkey, over a hundred journalists are in jail while every other advertisement hoarding in the city portrays recently re-elected President Erdoğan gazing into the middle distance, with the message "Thank You Istanbul" for voting him wider powers. The tragedy of this one-time relative liberal is Turkey's tragedy. Given the cultural riches of this city, artistic and otherwise, it was hard not to regard inner emigration as an understandable reaction – devoting one's energies to art, not politics.

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