An Elegant Ritual
Release date: July 16, 2021
Celebrated pianist, composer and noted scholar Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol presents his new full-length album An Elegant Ritual. This revelatory new recording deepens Sanlıkol’s singular approach to melding the sonorities of Turkish music with contemporary jazz language, striking a distinct balance between tradition and innovation. On his first ever trio recording, the prolific multi-instrumentalist realizes this expanded vision with James Heazlewood-Dale on acoustic bass and George Lernis on drums, gongs and bendir (a wooden-framed drum typical in the music of the Middle East).
Sanlıkol’s eagerly-awaited new release synergizes the concept of the classic piano trio with his own musical paradigm which draws from a diverse array of worldly and spiritual inspirations. The set transcends the typical piano trio format with the addition of Sanlıkol’s expressive vocalisations and captivating performance on the ney (a traditional end-blown flute that figures prominently in Middle Eastern music), as well as with Lernis’ use of Indonesian gongs and the bendir. An Elegant Ritual follows Sanlıkol’s critically-acclaimed 2020 release The Rise Up: Stories of Strife, Struggle and Inspiration which featured his dynamic jazz orchestra Whatsnext? and NEA Jazz Master Dave Liebman as soloist.
Though Sanlıkol has regularly performed in small group formats for nearly two decades, this is his first recorded trio venture. The hold up, he reveals, was in part due to a deep seated desire to innovate, and say something entirely new in the time-honed format. “Perhaps my obsession with wanting to say something new originates from having seen the busts of Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin on my mother’s piano since early childhood,” he muses, “I do realize that that model is problematic due to the way it defines newness and innovation in a Eurocentric way, which in turn expresses a type of homegrown exoticism.” Throughout his active and diverse career, in which he has acutely straddled the lines of jazz and a variety of Turkish musics, he has helped carry the notion of newness toward a more pluralistic and inclusive point where improvisation plays an important role. In the end, the urge to say something ‘new’ has always been present in his work and An Elegant Ritual is no exception.
While An Elegant Ritual surely pushes musical boundaries, Sanlıkol made a conscious effort to stay somewhat loyal to the jazz piano trio tradition in reverence to its rich history and craftsmanship. In this spirit, the entire album was recorded live devoid of overdubs or special effects. Furthermore, pieces such as “Invitation” – which is the only standard present – and “Lost Inside” invoke the piano trio aesthetic by keeping with the traditional jazz instrumentation, with no extra instruments added or Turkish/world music influences explicitly heard.
The bulk of An Elegant Ritual features varying degrees of Turkish and other musical influences, augmented by Sanlıkol’s emotive vocal stylings present on nearly all the tracks with the exception of the title track, the aforementioned “Invitation” and interludes. Whenever Turkish music elements are at play, Sanlıkol also makes a concerted effort to honor that tradition’s subteletlies of the makam (mode) and usul (rhythmic cycles) concepts.
Structurally, An Elegant Ritual is modeled after a Sufi whirling dervish ritual (Mevlevi ayin) with influences from John Coltrane’s hallmark A Love Supreme. The Mevlevi ayin typically features a central composition bracketed by an opening call and a preparatory piece in front, and two upbeat pieces at the end. Here, the central composition has four movements (like A Love Supreme) with strategically designed appearances of the gongs and ney. And also like A Love Supreme, Sanlıkol desired to imbue a sense of spirituality within the music, a quality that is prominently felt on the title track in particular.
An Elegant Ritual is set in motion with “The 7th Day”, which after a prelude (or an ‘opening call’), sets the stage with Sanlıkol’s emotive scat-singing and incandescent performance on the piano. This preparatory piece is followed by “Lost Inside”, which kicks off the four-movement album centerpiece. Leaning toward the traditional jazz trio aesthetic, “Lost Inside” showcases the composer’s tremendous improvisational acuity, and the marvelous interplay of the rhythm section. While the majority of this album features pieces that have short forms and are essentially vehicles toward improvisation (in line with the jazz trio tradition), “Arayış / In Search” and the following “An Elegant Ritual” are ambitious compositions which extend that aesthetic toward innovation.
“An Elegant Ritual” introduces listeners to ideas and timbres that are entirely new, and have never been heard before in this type of setting. “The opening duo of the bass and ney in unison was achieved by having the bass play the challenging natural harmonics at the very top of its range which perfectly complemented the microtonal nature of the ney. On the other hand, the use of gongs originated more than 20 years ago when I first heard Javanese Gamelan. After studying Javanese Gamelan for a number of years and eventually assembling our own set of gongs, I wrote the interlocking gong and usul pattern based on the cyclical structures of that tradition which serves as the foundation of the composition,” describes Sanlıkol. While it took over six months for Lernis and Sanlıkol to find, order and properly arrange the gongs in their set, the most stunning achievement of all is that Lernis learned to play the complex, interlocking gong and drums pattern in a very short period of time with amazing precision.
And while instruments like the ney can be found in jazz contexts regularly these days, it is Sanlıkol’s observation that a true synthesis of the jazz and the ethnic musical tradition is hard to come by. “After many years of performing jazz followed by an intense and a lengthy period of strictly traditional Turkish music performance, I found myself at a point where I started to ‘speak’ both of those musical languages on a number of instruments and as a singer,” he describes. As a result, Sanlıkol chose to comp himself on the piano while improvising on the ney simultaneously, as heard on “An Elegant Ritual”.
Sanlıkol’s vocals can be heard most notably in the prelude and in “Hasret”. The composer describes his vocal style as a blend of Turkish aesthetics and scat-singing acting as a bridge between two traditions. Doubling melodic and improvised lines, and independently countering Sanlıkol’s harmonic refrains and rhythmic movement from Lernis and Heazlewood–Dale, the fervency and resolve in the bandleader’s voice reminds one of the sound of Coltrane’s horn on A Love Supreme. The album concludes with the sole non-original piece “Invitation”, a masterful nod towards the classic jazz trio sounds of yesteryear. Sanlıkol remarks, that “the two upbeat pieces at the end (traditional in a dervish ritual) are echoed here by the postlude and “Invitation”, which is my invitation to you to join this Elegant Ritual.”
A masterwork of sonancy and cultural interchange, An Elegant Ritual is “an awakening”, New York Times Best Selling author Kabir Sehgal proclaims. “From the first notes, you know that you’re in for an adventure, not just one that spans East and West. But that of a cognitive leap towards what music can be.”
The Rise Up: Stories of Strife, Struggle and Inspiration
Release date: August 21, 2020
“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
Prolific composer and multi-instrumentalist Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol unveils 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.
For 'An Elegant Ritual'
"The album rounds off with the Bronislaw Kaper composition ‘Invitation’, we come full circle as Sanlikol explores this jazz standard as a pianist with a deep knowledge of his own musical roots. It’s played with the authenticity of a Turkish American who has woven together both strands of his identity." Read this review here.
DEE DEE MCNEIL
"This music is rich with art, history and spirit. It stretches the boundaries of jazz, offering the listener adventurous arrangements that embrace Eastern and Western culture and take a cognitive leap towards what jazz is and what it can be." Read the full review here.
TIZIANA DEARING, CHRIS CITORIK
"Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, Grammy-nominated musician, composer, and faculty member at the New England Conservatory, joins us to talk about his new album, "An Elegant Ritual," which comes out Friday, and the value of speaking multiple musical languages." Listen to the full segment here.
For 'The Rise Up: Stories of Strife, Struggle and Inspiration'
JazzTimes is honored to premiere the video for “The Owl Song” by composer/multi-instrumentalist Mehmet Ali Sanlikol and his jazz orchestra Whatsnext? The track, written by Sanlikol, appears on the group’s latest album, The Rise Up: Stories of Strife, Struggle and Inspiration, which was released in August 2020 on Dünya Records. Check this video premiere here.
"The new album is structured around three episodes from Middle Eastern history as well as the current pandemic. Musically, it presents a wonderful fusion of jazz with traditional Turkish instruments and colors." Check this playlist here.
"Looking for some Monday motivation? We’ve got you covered! From a piece inspired by Sufi poet Rumi to a composition…" Check this article out here.
"The Rise Up is such a fascinating journey, a splendid mixture, with a such a panoply of sounds as well as melodies based on traditional music." Check this review here.
"In concept and execution this is an excellent recording." Read the four star review in the September issue.
DEE DEE MCNEIL
"This is Grammy Award-winning music. You will be transformed, and that’s really what great music is all about; transformation and rebirth." Check this review here.
LET'S CALL THIS
"It’s a poignant reminder that the Ottoman empire was multi-ethnic and multi-cultural and the heart of this deeply-felt and lovingly executed project." Read the review here.
"Combining the histories of seemingly disparate yet intertwined people while insinuating the music and instrumentation of the Middle East into a big-band jazz setting, Sanlikol relates stories of redemption and newfound grace while poignantly arranging a unique constellation of instrumentation—one that provides Liebman ample space to help narrate the story." Check the video premiere here.
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
"In other words, it is exquisite music, superbly written and performed, and stars are awarded on that basis." Check this review here.
MAKING A SCENE
"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." Check this review here.
"A high water mark for the arm chair traveler feeling restless in these stay at home times when something more potent than going out for a drink is called for." Check this review here.
WULF'S MUSIC + BLOG
"A large ensemble album that will have a good run at a Grammy in that category and should find a global audience for its quality and masterful writing and performance. Stunning!!!!!" Check this playlist here.
LA HABITACIÓN DEL JAZZ
"Sanlikol ha sabido aunar el jazz con las músicas turca, árabe y flamenca consiguiendo un todo perfectamente engrasado, preservando la integridad de las tradiciones pero sin renunciar a lo contemporáneo." Para leer este articulo presione aquí.
SUSSEX JAZZ MAGAZINE
"The Rise Up, the new release by Turkish-Amercian musician and composer Mehmet Ali Sanlikol is a fine example of a composer musically narrating key moments in the history of the Middle East and doing so with grace and gusto." Read the full review here.
GEORGE W. HARRIS
"The best of music is to bring people and ideas together. Mehmet Ali Sanlikol brings his voice and middle eastern instruments of the ney, zurna and ud to team up with guest soprano saxist Dave Liebmen and the 18 member orchestra conducted by Ken Schaphorst to speak to “our better angels” in this time of tumult." Read the full review here.
"Taken as a whole The Rise Up confirms that talents of composer and soloist in the creation of a suite that could be repeatedly appreciated." Read the review here.
An exciting journey through time and space with striking contrasts.