Guitarist Beau Bledsoe describes the aesthetic and approach of his new group Alaturka as a “musical handshake” between jazz and traditional Turkish music. While visiting his wife’s family in Istanbul Bledsoe heard attempts at merging both genres, but noticed that something of each genre and culture were lost in the process. He felt that his friends in Kansas City would be able to pull off what was hearing in his head. Bledsoe, who is a world class Flamenco guitarist, enlisted the help of KC tenorman Rich Wheeler, bassist Jeff Harshbarger, who I believe at this writing is on the road with Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, and percussionist Sait Arat, who is from Istanbul. Tamam Abi, which translates to “okay brother,” is Alaturka’s excellent debut album.
I’ve seen Alaturka perform a handful of times and based on those performances Tamam Abi fully realizes the group’s aesthetic. The album combines traditional and popular Turkish songs, scales and rhythms with jazz improvisation. As a saxophonist I can attest that this music is incredibly hard to play, from the non-Western scales, which can have many more than twelve tones in an octave, to the tempo shifts, to the difficult tunes, to the tricky meters – that is, tricky for Western trained musicians. I’ve heard Harshbarger and Wheeler describe in clinics how they have had to adjust how they play their instruments in order to play in tune with Bledsoe’s guitar and oud. In Wheeler’s case he has had to invent new fingerings, and at times he has to ignore what his Western-trained ears are telling him is an out of tune note in order to play in tune. Despite the numerous difficulties inherent in this music’s approach the end result sounds effortless, which is a tribute to the musicianship on display here.
The closest auditory comparison to Alaturka I can make is to Anouar Brahem’s recent album The Astounding Eyes of Rita on ECM, although Brahem used bass clarinet instead of tenor. I enjoyed Brahem’s album (I gave it 3 stars in my Downbeat review), but Tamam Abi is a much more dynamic, engaging, and lively recording that lacks some of the over-done quiet introspection on Brahem’s album, which can sometimes plague ECM recordings. What we have in Tamam Abi is an album that is wide ranging in moods, tempos, and textures.
Wheeler, who is playing the tenor at an incredibly high level right now, is often the group’s dominant melodic and solo voice. He shows his ability to produce lengthy, voice-evoking, lyrical lines on the upbeat “Neyleyim Köskü,” which also features fine solos by Arat and Bledsoe on oud (you’d never know that oud was a relatively recent addition to Bledsoe’s arsenal). Wheeler often shows off his sick chops (his altissimo is always in tune, under control, and seemingly effortless), his left-of-center leaning style, and his ability to build a solo logically. On the album’s opener “Leyla” he begins his solo quietly, placing space between his ideas; it’s as if he pauses, thinks to himself “ok, now let’s see where I can go with this,” and proceeds. He juxtaposes longer melodic lines with more probing exclamations that begin in the horn’s bottom end and surge upward.
Harshbarger, who has numerous side projects, has a huge bass sound which anchors the group, often via ostinato patterns. He also has several opportunities to solo and does so with aplomb. Bledsoe’s oud solo stands out on “Gözyaşi.” Every note is shaped, many are bent, and many more are heard vibrating sympathetically. His measured phrases are held fast by Harshbarger and Arat’s nimble drumming. The title track is a solo for Arat, in which numerous percussion instruments are overdubbed on top of each other; it grooves like mad.
Tamam Abi is an excellent album, made by four mature and highly skilled musicians who share and achieve a common aesthetic goal. All you need to know about Alaturka can be found on the record’s closing track: “Kürdili Hicazkar Longa.” It begins with a jaunty, medium tempo, snaking melody line that is heavy on quickly repeated notes and trills. The tempo jumps up for a brief continuation of the head and then Wheeler goes off frantically over Bledsoe’s strumming, Harshbarger’s repeated pounding bass note that pushes the group forward, and Arat’s busy hands and fingers. The dynamics soften up, the texture thins out, and it’s Arat’s turn. After a rhythmically inventive and texturally varying solo he cues the head and the band comes in to take the tune out. Not being familiar with traditional Turkish music I cannot determine if any of that musical tradition has been sacrificed in this group. But I can say that the jazz element is there, and that regardless of what one chooses to call Alaturka’s music, it is inventive, creative, hypnotic, rewarding, and fun to listen to. Harshbarger told me that the group hopes to play the Istanbul Jazz Festival in a year or so. That would be a level of success that this group deserves.
Tracks: Leyla; Gözyaşi (Tear); Kirmizi Gülün Ali Var (The Rose has such a Deep Red); Neyleyim Köskü (A Palace Without My Beloved); Tamam Abi (Okay Brother); Hatasiz Kul Olmaz (No one is without Faults); Vazgeçtim (I Gave Up); Yüksek Yüksek Tepelere (On the High High Hills); Kürdili Hicazkar Longa.
Personnel: Rich Wheeler, tenor saxophone; Beau Bledsoe, oud, saz, guitar; Jeff Harshbarger, bass; Sait Arat, darbuka, bass darbuka, bendir, tef, hand cymbals.