Review: Istanbul Jazz Festival

The 23rd Istanbul Jazz Festival took place in turbulent times, says N Buket Cengiz, but produced some fabulous and positive nights of music

The 2015 Istanbul Jazz Festival took place in an optimistic atmosphere. It was soon after the elections in which the left got its best results since the 12 September 1980 coup. It was a high time for all those on the side of rights, liberties and democracy; in short, that long list of everything progressive. However, the times that followed swept away that atmosphere with a turmoil that's impossible to explain in this piece. Yet Turkey is a big country with a young population and Istanbul, where the heart of the country beats, has a vibrant culture and arts life which will not lose its charm and dynamism easily. Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV), with the various festivals and biennales it has been organising for decades and a club hosting avant-garde musicians from all parts of the world, is one of the most significant constituents of this atmosphere of culture and arts in the city. The 2016 festival will be remembered as yet another occasion where the determination of this foundation was impressive.

That healing power
The opening show of the festival on 27 June was as meaningful as it could be in a country which hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees: Africa Express presents… The Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music + Damon Albarn (pictured left). The ensemble, after their premiere at a Dutch festival this summer, opened the Glastonbury Festival playing the Pyramid Stage; then following their performance in the Southbank Centre in London they were in the Cemil Topuzlu in Istanbul.

The night started with a short speech in Turkish, English and Arabic emphasising the healing power of culture and arts, particularly of music. At the moment these words were spoken who could know that Turkey would need that healing power once again so soon? The night was extraordinary: despair and hope, sorrow and joy enmeshed in such alchemy. The orchestra, comprising Syrian women and men, sang beautiful songs of their country. Albarn played and sang his masterpiece Out Of Time, which he wrote during the invasion of Iraq. Seckou Keita from Senegal touched the souls of the audience with notes on his kora and the melodies of the ardin played by the Mauritanian musician Noura Mint Seymali were enchanting. The sound and energy of all the musicians was spectacular: Bassekou Kouyaté from Mali, Syrian producer and rapper Bu Kolthoum, rapper Eslam Jawaad, Malikah from Lebanon, Mounir Troudi from Tunisia and Turkish rapper Ceza. The final touch was by Rachid Taha with his signature song Ya Rayah. As the Syrian refugees, the IKSV's invited guests, the Turkish audience and foreigners from various countries in the amphitheatre danced and sang to the song, its lyrics sounded like "peace" in all the languages of the world. It was one of the most unforgettable nights, not only from this year’s jazz festival, but from all editions of the festival.

Just around the corner from Beşiktaş’s recently rebuilt İnönü Stadium, at the bottom of the Maçka Park, is the Küçükçiftlik Park, the venue for the next concert. It was the second night of the festival, 28 June, and an energetic crowd was dancing to Nile Rodgers after having enjoyed the opening act, the Unknown Mortal Orchestra. The night was full of disco and funk, the crowd was in high spirits; Rodgers, the band, the backing vocalists all so perfect. The sad news arrived suddenly, towards the end of the concert: bombs had exploded in Istanbul’s primary airport, taking away 40 innocent people and leaving many others injured. Just a couple of minutes earlier Rodgers was telling the audience about how he beat cancer when doctors told him that there was no hope. That was such a night, with its message of the unpredictability of life.

Living the moment
In this year’s programme there was almost a two-week break after the first two concerts because of the Ramadan holiday. So when the festival concerts started again at the end of the holiday the atmosphere was almost back to normal after the terror attack. The urge to stick to life, to the moment, was dominant. In such a mood, the Lifelong Achievement Awards were given to Turkish jazz giants Özdemir Erdoğan (pictured right) and Ergüven Başaran, in the lovely garden of the Austrian Culture Office. It was a playful night with the rhythms of Swing Unltd, Başaran’s swing band, which played after the award ceremony. Özdemir Erdoğan played on the next night in the Uniq open air theatre. With some favourite Turkish and foreign songs gathered together under the theme of nostalgia for his latest album, as he swayed through different genres and eras Erdoğan mesmerized the audience. On 12 July one of the most beautiful venues of the festival, the Sakıp Sabancı Museum with its stunning Bosphorus view, hosted Nicholas Payton with his trio, joined by the American vocalist Jane Monheit who performed songs from Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

Istanbul Jazz Festival likes surprises, with the musicians it invites as well as with its venues. This year’s great venue surprise was the former shoe factory of Beykoz, an old, picturesque district in the northern end of the Bosphorus on the Anatolian side. In this dreamlike night of the festival, the audience, who arrived at the venue after a pleasant, hour-long journey by boat organised by the IKSV, enjoyed the superb performances of the French-Cuban twins, Ibeyi, and after them of Kamasi Washington, a virtuoso of wind instruments, particularly the tenor saxophone.

On 15 July, Friday night, while, after enjoying the opening performance of the French Quarter, hundreds of festival goers were listening to some classic songs of Nat King Cole from the amazing voice of Hugh Coltman, the country was almost taken over by the military. The next days were certainly not ordinary for anyone in Turkey. Concerts from Antonio Sanchez and Migration, Scofield Mehldau Guiliana, Branford Marsalis Quartet and guest Kurt Elling, Ernest Ranglin & Friends and The Budos Band, Laura Mvula and Jacob Collier planned for the following days were all cancelled by the artists.

Culture and arts for better days
Many artists decided to honour their commitments to be in Istanbul. The planned concert by Cyrus Chestnut, Buster Williams and Lenny White took place without White's participation and it was a night to remember: only three days after the night of an attempted coup, musicians were on stage and the crowd in their seats enjoyed the melodies of jazz. Vintage Trouble, Joss Stone's support act, chose not to come but Stone made her decision to be in Istanbul, in the festival where she gave the closing concert five years ago. Her concert venue on Saturday 23 July was changed from an open-air venue to an indoor one, but who cares, Stone made a hall full of people dance for two hours on that fabulous night.

The final concert of the festival, featuring Allan Harris (pictured left), Roy Hargrove and Roberta Gambarini with the TRT Radio Big Band, was also changed from outdoors to indoors. In the concert there were touches from all over the world: standards, Latin rhythms and melodies from Turkey. Allan Harris with his impressive baritone vocal and warm personality shone on the stage. All three stars, together with the orchestra, closed the festival on a highly positive, optimistic note. The Turkish flags being waived by the orchestra as the concert was ending stressed the feeling of unity in a country that has been polarised for so long.

Photos by Selcuk Polat

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