Turkish American composer, pianist and vocalist Mehmet Ali Sanlikol’s new release, An Elegant Ritual, weaves together several distinct musical threads in an East meets West take on the jazz trio format. Traditional Turkish folk music, Western classical as well as elements of gamelan are melded together to create new forms of expression. Brought up in Istanbul, Sanlikol describes his musical education as very ‘West facing’ and ‘very Eurocentric’. Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart were its pillars, his piano teacher mum Fethiye Sanlikol taught him this classical tradition and from a young age, he was performing piano recitals. He describes himself as ‘confident of who I was’ as he progressed through classical musical education and towards jazz. He was then awarded a scholarship to Boston’s Berklee College of Music where he graduated in jazz composition and film scoring. He did not question this confidence until being defeated by a ‘simple’ Turkish folk song at the age of 25, and asking of himself ‘how come I couldn’t figure out the music of where I came from?’ This led to a ten-year commitment to studying the traditional music of his home territory. With this came the desire to challenge preconceived notions of his Western facing upbringing and to question the intrusive nature of globalism itself. At the same time, he had the need to embrace its possibilities while constantly questioning and challenging what he refers to as an ‘uncomfortable globalism’.
Sanlikol has made many recordings but surprisingly this is his first jazz trio album. He extends the format with the inclusion of scat vocals with a distinctly Turkish aesthetic and the ney (traditional flute). The album was recorded live and had assumed there must be overdubs when I heard the ney and piano together but Sanlikol impressively improvises both instruments simultaneously on a few parts of the record. James Heazlewood-Dale plays acoustic bass and George Lernis features on drums, gongs and bendir.
The elegant ritual in question is that of the Melevi ayin or Dervish. The meditative practice of reaching an ecstatic trance by physical exertion and in turn reaching towards god inspired the way Sanlikol structured the album.
‘Prelude’ sets out the stall with a fine example of the whole album’s East meets West philosophy. Sanlikol’s scat vocals shift effortlessly between the Turkish aesthetic and jazz as he repeats a single note on the piano. ‘The 7th Day’ has more of a straight jazz theme and is positively joyous as Sanlikol bounds up and down the keyboard accompanied by his own vocal improvisations and the other two band members. ‘Interlude’ heads East once more with the introduction of gamelan rhythmic patterns and piano. The possibly autobiographical ‘Lost Inside’ follows, its trajectory seeming to echo the story of Sanlikol’s awakening to his own musical traditions. There’s a neat trio workout which briefly edges into a Jacques Loussier moment as jazz meets the classics. A contemplative passage leads back to an exuberant vocal scat. There’s a processional quality to the title track ‘An Elegant Ritual’, more gamelan patterns and the wispy sounding ney move the piece forward as the piano improvisation builds around them both. It then shifts from East to West for some pure piano trio work and back again for a reprise of that spiritual sounding ney.
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.