With diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Turkey in sore need of a boost, let me suggest that Mehmet Ali Sanlikol could step up with his Whatsnext? Orchestra to launch a solid, swinging, State Department Tour.
Sanlikol’s two parts American big band jazz and one part Turkish folk/military rhythms and traditional song seem a stylistically equitable, politically viable mix. He brilliantly showcases top-notch cosmopolitan guests: Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen, Panamanian vocalist Nedelka Prescod, Brooklynite soprano saxophonist Dave Liebman, Mexican drummer Antonio Sánchez and Japanese trumpeter Tiger Okoshi.
The nine-track album clearly splits into thirds: joyous, formal and scholarly. The first, the best balanced and most successful, features Cohen, Sanlikol and Prescod. Clarinet struts N’awlins over a juicy, smile-inducing street rhythm immediately identifiable across the Middle East—Moroccan wedding or Greek table-dancing, anyone?
Sanlikol features himself on a high-flying romantic melody pitting wordless voice in piquant microtones with dazzling etchings of his continuum fingerboard. In “Whirl Around”, Prescod wraps her voluptuous contralto around sassy Turkish funk in a jaunty vocal duo with Sanlikol, whose ney (Turkish ‘oboe’) also nails a bluesy counterline. In the central third, a formal concerto written for Liebman and big band, the opening “Rebellion” works best: its experimentally inchoate intro leads to cascading brass with spicy harpsichord and seductive melody, zesty unison squibs with piano and flashing Liebman over argumentative ensemble.
While Liebman cuts a pretty chorus on the maudlin “Ballad”, he finds little material (or space) to add more than a zippy coda to a thematically unbending “Resolution”.
Sanlikol’s scholarly side emerges on “Niyaz Suite”, his decade-long study of Turkish ethnomusicology, including makam rhythms developed over centuries for the regal militarism of Ottoman Sultans’ janissary bands.
Sanchez leads in and solos on a dead-slow usul (14-beat rhythm pattern), which eventually evokes a spiritual haze surrounding whirling dervishes’ trances. A speedier 6/4 wraps Sanlikol’s blood-stirring zurna (wooden oboe) around Okoshi’s freebop aerobatics.
As coda, we hear an introspective piano/voice solo, reminiscent of Egberto Gismonti, where the sketchiest orchestration somehow invokes the band’s name.