Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol & Whatsnext? Present THE RISE UP: Stories of Strife, Struggle and Inspiration on August 21, 2020 via DÜNYA

“It’s hard to find unique music nowadays. It’s even harder to find unique large-ensemble music. Mehmet and his band are, in my opinion, one of the most interesting musical associations on the scene. They easily navigate between the jazz, Turkish and Middle Eastern worlds effortlessly. The Rise Up, being commissioned by special guest Dave Liebman, is a huge compositional and conceptual accomplishment where storytelling is paramount and the performance is immaculate. Movements of the piece blend seamlessly and paint a big picture that is ambitious but crystal clear in its execution. Dave Liebman shines through it and so does the whole ensemble. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.” – 5x GRAMMY Winner Antonio Sanchez

On August 21, 2020, prolific composer and multi-instrumentalist Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol will unveil his most ambitious project yet: THE RISE UP: Stories of Strife, Struggle and Inspiration with his dynamic jazz orchestra Whatsnext? Written for and featuring NEA Jazz Master Dave Liebman as soloist, The Rise Up is an epic three-part artistic masterpiece that combines traditional Middle Eastern instrumentation and classical Turkish music with the jazz language in a cosmopolitan and internalized fashion.

The seeds for The Rise Up were planted in 2017, when Dave Liebman asked Sanlıkol to compose an extended programmatic piece for jazz orchestra featuring himself as soloist. Particularly, Liebman requested that the piece draw from Turkish and Sephardic Jewish musical elements as well as cultural and historical resources. Saddened and personally affected by the current political climate and offensive stereotyping of Muslims in the US, Sanlıkol chose to construct the piece around three episodes from Middle Eastern history that chronicle traumatic events followed by transcendental creation and/or human inspiration. This uplifting message speaks to Sanlıkol’s belief that humanity will rise up above these difficult times. Now, in an unexpected turn of events, his sentiments are more relevant than ever in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the Black Lives Matter protests.

The first narrative centers around the great 13th century Sufi poet Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi, composer of some of the most beautiful mystical poetry ever written after the murder of Shams (lit. “sun” in Arabic), his beloved teacher and friend. The second story comes from the traditions of the Sephardim, Jews expelled from Spain but welcomed by the Ottomans, leading to a cultural flowering treasured to this day. The third narrative tells the story of Mimar Sinan, forcibly taken by the Ottomans as a young Orthodox Christian boy, who came to embrace his new Muslim identity and rose to great heights in mid-16th century as the master architect of some of the greatest mosques in the world.

In constructing The Rise Up, Sanlıkol took some cues from another masterpiece: Miles Davis Gil Evans’ perennial Sketches of Spain. Knowing Liebman’s affinity for Sketches…, Sanlıkol decided to incorporate the kind of orchestration found on that recording. Thus, the standard big band with saxophones, trumpets, trombones and rhythm section has been expanded with additional winds and brass including oboe, English horn, flute, clarinets, bass clarinet, French horn and tuba. This expanded instrumentation is then supplemented by a variety of Middle Eastern instruments and percussion such as the ney (end-blown flute), zurna (double reed pipe), ud (short-necked lute), darbuka (goblet-shaped drum), tef (small frame drum with cymbals), nekkare (small kettledrums), and kös (large kettledrums) as well as orchestral percussion and voices both solo and tutti with a small group of singers performing in the Greek Orthodox (Byzantine) style.

Each movement on The Rise Up is comprised of three pieces, resulting in 9 non-stop sections individually represented by specially chosen historical images (as seen in the accompanying booklet). Designed to feature the soloist, all movements begin with short ‘samples’ of traditional and/or period music representing each new character or people as in the ney taksim (improvisation) in 1. The Sun of Tabriz, the Renaissance band in 4. Spain, 1492, and the Byzantine choir in 7. A Confrontation in Anatolia. While each movement includes several recurring themes, a central theme that is introduced in their first sections is always brought back in the final sections as in the very first entrance of Dave Liebman in The Sun of Tabriz recaptured within 3. Rumi’s Solitude; the folk song-like tune introduced in Spain, 1492 brought back as a Sephardic Ladino song in 6. A New Land, A New Music; and the “Kyrie Eleison” which begins A Confrontation in Anatolia is reintroduced as a slightly gospel influenced melody performed by Dave Liebman at the beginning of 9. The Owl Song. All of the middle sections provide strong stylistic contrast as in 2. A Vicious Murder initially dominated by a simple but an evolving ostinato with dense melodic material followed by dissonant and polymodal big band writing; 8. Rise Thru the Barracks where perhaps the most contrasting shift in the entire piece occurs with a comic book hero-like portrayal of a young soldier accompanied by up-tempo swing; and, 5. Temmuz (lit. “July” in Turkish) which is the central piece in this composition where multiple versions of rhythmic cycles in 7 beats portray different stages of Jews leaving Spain and arriving in Turkey as the decree by Isabella and Ferdinand ordering their expulsion gave them until July 31 of 1492.

While the majority of the composition uses the jazz language with strong influences of classical Turkish music, the second movement breaks to incorporate the solea pattern found in Flamenco music. And, while there are several moments which display uses of microtonal flavors, the most significant example of such a passage would be the extended unison where the zurna is doubled with trumpets in A Confrontation in Anatolia during which American trumpeters use alternate fingerings in combination with extended tubings devised to be able to perform the precise microtones of the Turkish makam (mode) tradition.

While The Rise Up pulls from myriad musical styles throughout, Sanlıkol manages to preserve the integrity of each tradition. “As a musician who is devoted to a type of multiculturalism that is not touristic but truly internalized, I was particularly careful to incorporate the Turkish makam, usul (rhythmic cycles), microtones, and inflections without exoticizing them,” he said.

The result is a truly adventurous and perhaps career defining recording that manages to bring people, history and worlds together. As Producer Kabir Sehgal states in the liner notes, The Rise Up puts us on a path towards a more inviting and humane future.

The Rise Up features Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol & Whatsnext? and is conducted by Ken Schaphorst. This album is supported by grants from the New England Conservatory, The Aaron Copland Fund for Music, and The American Turkish Society.

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