CD review

Mehmet Ali Sanlikol and Whatsnext? – “The Rise Up: Stories of Strife, Struggle and Inspiration”

Mehmet Ali Sanlikol and Whatsnext? – The Rise Up: Stories of Strife, Struggle and Inspiration
(Dünya 014. CD review by Ciaran Carter)

A bold title for a bold album from jazz composer Mehmet Ali Sanlikol. Sanlikol is a Grammy-nominated Turkish-American composer, who is also a pianist and multi-instrumentalist, playing a number of Middle Eastern instruments. He also teaches Music History and Musicology and is Co-Director of the Intercultural Institute at the New England Conservatory in Boston.

He has done a broad range of writing in a very broad range of genres. For example, as well as projects with his jazz orchestra Whatsnext? and his endeavours in Turkish music, he received a Grammy Award nomination in 2014 for his work with chamber orchestra A Far Cry. He has also written a “Coffeehouse Opera” called Othello in the Seraglio: The Tragedy of Sümbül, The Black Eunuch.

The Rise Up album coverSaxophonist Dave Liebman instigated the commission for Sanlikol to write The Rise Up. In lineage the piece has incorporated “the kind of orchestration as well as cosmopolitanism” of the Miles Davis/Gil Evans album Sketches of Spain. The instrumentation is non-standard big band with the addition of classical woodwinds, tuba and Middle Eastern instruments, which all get their moment to shine in the written content. Dave Liebman is the featured and only soloist.

The album is comprised of three narratives, each three tracks in length, about important and inspiring people in Middle Eastern history. The first narrative is based on the story of celebrated 13th Century poet, Rumi. The second is about the tradition of the Sephardim who were expelled from Spain in the 1400s. The third is the story of Mimar Sinan, who became one of the master architects of some of the greatest mosques in the world.

This album is an exploration of Sanlikol’s identity as an American and Turkish musician, and his struggles with this. As the material accompanying the album explains: “Saddened and personally affected by the current political climate and offensive stereotyping of Muslims in the US, Sanlikol 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 can be heard in the blending of Middle Eastern melodies over harmonies found in contemporary big band writing in America. However, sometimes the clash between the two worlds does feel a bit out of place. For example, Rise Thru The Barracks introduces an up-tempo swing, whereas the preceding tracks had a more Middle Eastern feel. It is a surprise to the ear, but then maybe that is Sanlikol’s intention. The Owl Song features beautifully sensitive piano playing by Sanlikol and is overall an absolutely beautiful track. However, the 12/8 “bluesy” feel does sound a bit contrived after the different sound worlds we listen to throughout the album.

Dave Liebman features as soloist in what is a forest of new colours. His playing is as youthful and mature as ever, and also can be quite haunting; in particular on the track Spain, 1492. His melodic style is perfectly suited to Sanlikol’s harmonic material and the more “free” moments. It is a shame, however, that Sanlikol has all those instruments at his disposal yet doesn’t give anyone else a solo. It would have been nice to hear someone else have a moment.

A nice addition to the album are the vocal solos by Spyridon Antonopoulos, George Fitopoulos, Haralambos Hamos, Ridvan Aydinli, and Sanliko himself, in Rumi’s Solitude, Temmuz and A New Land, A New Music. All vocals are sung very beautifully, but at times it was difficult to hear them; they could perhaps have done with being higher in the mix, particularly in Temmuz. One of the most sublime moments on the album is when a Turkish Byzantine choir sings “Kyrie Eleison” in the track A Confrontation in Anatolia. While it works very well and is utterly beautiful, it does seem a bit indulgent when surely the same content could have been portrayed equally well with the already huge ensemble.

This album is like going on an adventure into the mind of Sanlikol. What do we find there? It is familiar, yet different. It is harmonically complex, but at times, melodically simple. As a modern homage to Sketches of Spain it is massively persuasive. Sanlikol finds a good balance between his Turkish and Middle Eastern influences and his American deep immersion and experience of jazz. In summary, and on so many levels, there is a lot here for music lovers to get their teeth into.

LINK: Preview and purchase the album

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