Ilhan Ersahin’s Istanbul Sessions Reveals the “Istanbul Underground”

The music I have awaited all my life.
by Travis Rogers Jr, The Jazz Owl, and 

In this their third outing, Ilhan Ersahin’s Istanbul Sessions has continued to create a musical adventure that takes you where you never thought possible. “Istanbul Underground” (on Ersahin’s own Nublu Records) is a work of extraordinary imagination, reflection, and meditation.

Joining tenor saxophonist Ersahin are bassist Alp Ersonmez, percussionist Izzet Kizil, and drummer Turgut Alp Bekoglu. The compositions were written or co-written by Ersahin.

The album is introduced with “Falling” by Ersahin and Ersonmez. The piece opens with the heavy rhythms of Ersonmez, Kizil and Bekoglu. Ersahin soon joins with the beautiful intonations of the tenor saxophone. A quick break comes with a heavy bass and trilling sax. And just like that. You. Are. Hooked.

The cool melodic lines of the tenor sax waft across the driving rhythms to intoxicating effect. Ersonmez’s thunderous, propulsive bass is of particular effect here as Kizil and Bekoglu nail the hard groove. It is mesmerizing piece.

“Sariyer” opens with a techno-rhythm that is actually kind of charming. Ersahin’s sax comes on top and his chord changes and his textures are completely unexpected. The rhythm is solid beneath as Ersonmez drives the groove. Ersahin’s melodic line is something quite extraordinary.

A funky, effected bass opens “The Calling.” The Bekoglu rhythm is straightforward as is Ersonmez on bass. The tonality of the tenor sax is something compelling. “The Calling” is aptly named, as the listener feels drawn in and submits to the summons. It is more than a sound, it is a visceral compulsion. The trilling tenor sax over the hard groove is sweet and is only shown once which makes it both satisfying—in the sense that you caught it in the first place—and it is anticipatory—in that you hope to hear it again.

An enthralling sense of meditative focus begins to manifest as you lose the awareness of surrounding and time in the midst of this contemplative adventure.

“Londres” launches with an Ozric Tentacles kind of groove and effect. Ersahin soars over the groove with a beautifully intoned narrative from the tenor sax. The staggered-beat of Bekoglu and the drive of Ersonmez create a springboard for Ersahin’s expressiveness. The rhythmic fade-out is cool.

A thunderous groove opens “McCoy.” The tenor sax comes overtop in arching tones and phrasing. The melody and the groove defy expectation. In fact, expectation is supplanted by expectancy. You cannot escape the captivation of the infectious melody and the riveting rhythms. The structure of the piece is brilliant. I began to listen deeply in a focus that made me realize that this was the music I have waited for my whole life. It is miraculous.

“Senin Icin Geldim” is a hypnotic beat that is covered and enhanced by the Ersahin tenor sax. The voice of the sax speaks in tones sweet and bitter. There is a haunting quality that is overcome with a determination that speaks of will and perseverance. The bass and drums close the piece.

“Sex, Drugs, and Jazz” is a defiant response to rock ‘n roll’s slogan. It is a deliberate backbeat beneath a slurred, hypnotic melodic line from the tenor. The melody tells the tale.

The hard drive returns with “Studio 54.” The rhythms push the melody of the tenor sax rather than support it. Ersahin works over and above the groove as he paints a fine work of color and texture. Cool.

“Pra Gato” enters with the low, pulsing of Ersonmez’s bass. A slow-tempo piece, the extraordinary lyricism of Ersahin creates a lush work of colorful, exquisite beauty.

“1981” follows in simpler, straight-ahead rhythms that allow for quirky, fun expressions from Ersahin. The drumming and percussion forge a rock-ish layer below and the tenor sax carries on a Jazz monologue that hints at something like a pop melody that is riotous fun.

Ersahin and Bekoglu co-wrote “Tarzanca.” It comes across as a Jazz nocturne opening before breaking loose into those fantastic Eastern rhythms. The lonely tenor sax cries above the lively rhythms and then carries on with the rhythms in gorgeous Eastern melodic lines and narratives. The droning bass and beat are laser-focused and the tenor sax speaks loudly then sweetly as the rhythms give way to the lovely, fading tones of the sax.

“Istanbul Underground” is a work of unanticipated artistry and thought, elegance and fire, and entrancing dance. It is like nothing I have ever heard or imagined. It was intellectually stimulating, emotionally satisfying and, in the end, I felt enlightened by the experience. Ilhan Ersahin is the herald of a coming world of Jazz that no one could have foreseen. At least, I didn’t.

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