Review: Istanbul Jazz Festival

N. Buket Cengiz reflects on the 20th Istanbul Jazz Festival, featuring Melody Gardot, Dee Dee Bridgewater and a salute to Esbjörn Svensson

Every year since 1994, İstanbul Jazz Festival, organized by IKSV in the first half of July, has been a revitalizing breeze for the summer-tired music lovers of İstanbul. At this time of the season, almost everyone in the city is counting down the days to run to the heavenly coves of the country on its Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. Yet once the festival starts, the rhythm covers the best venues of the city. Until now, the festival has featured significant names not only from jazz, but also from pop, rock and world music under the mesmerising summer sky of İstanbul: Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Paul Weller, Tori Amos, Eric Clapton, Lou Reed, Norah Jones and Massive Attack to name just a few.

This year’s festival was marked by the atmosphere of the Gezi Resistance, the largest civil uprising movement in Turkey’s history, which was fired from a passive resistance activist group trying to save the Gezi Park in central İstanbul at the end of May. The soul of Gezi was highlighted at numerous moments of the festival, sometimes in a sombre and melancholic mood, sometimes humorous and joyful. Like every year, the beauty of İstanbul, crystallizing in the beautiful concert venues, was emphasised by the visiting musicians at this year’s festival.

The festival opened on 1 July with a glittering name from the world of R&B, Alicia Keys. Park Orman, a miniature forest in the business district of Maslak, echoed with the slogans of the Gezi Resistance as the concert’s start was delayed for about 45 minutes – the young people there had become too used to shouting out slogans for democracy once they were more than a handful of people over the last month! Thankfully, Alicia Keys’ band members responded to the slogans with a similar energy and a great concert was performed. Keys impressed the audience with her piano playing and received admiration with her songs such as Fallin', New Day and Girl On Fire. In the encore she sang her famous Empire State Of Mind but replaced the New York lyric with İstanbul; a warm gesture to close her show.

On the second day of the festival, another songstress with a fascinating voice was on the bill: Dee Dee Bridgewater. She started the concert by expressing her admiration for İstanbul, and after a song left the stage for the orchestra comprising star musicians led by pianist Ramsey Lewis: Edsel Gomez who was on the piano for a while, Tim Gant on keyboards, on guitar Henry Johnson, on bass Joshua Ramos, and Charles Heath on drums. They played a repertoire with a Latin touch as well as surprises from soul hits such as songs from Earth, Wind and Fire as well as Stevie Wonder. When Bridgewater returned to the stage, she performed a mixture of bebop and scat, which was slightly disappointing for those in the audience expecting to hear some jazz standards and ballads. Still, it was a vibrant night of music, with the energy and charisma of all these talented musicians.

One of the most highly anticipated concerts of this year’s festival was Melody Gardot’s (pictured top) in the garden of the German Consulate building on the Bosporus coast. One of the mansions in tandem against the view of the sea and the Anatolian side of the city, the Consulate garden had probably its liveliest night on the 5 July. Gardot bewitched the audience not only with her hazy voice and characteristic singing style, but also with her presence on stage, emphasised by her sophisticated looks and charming chit-chat. Towards the end of her unforgettable concert, she convinced the Consulate to let the audience disregard the barriers inviting jokes about the Gezi Resistance.

10 July was a night of melancholy at the festival. This was the night of symphonic arrangements of Esbjörn Svensson Trio’s compositions made by the Swedish composer and conductor Hans Ek and performed by soloists and the Filarmonia Istanbul orchestra within the scope of a special project of the festival’s organiser IKSV. The soul of the groundbreaking figure of Nordic jazz Esbjörn Svensson, whose early death was such a tragedy, was there at the concert which ended with an audience presenting two banners to the conductor: one with Esbjörn Svensson’s name and the other with the names of the activists who lost their lives during the Gezi Resistance.

The festival’s special section “A Strange Place For Jazz”, in which concerts in extraordinary locations take place, is inspiring for those with an enthusiasm for the city as well as for music. This year’s “strange place” was the Rahmi Koç Museum, a private industrial museum dedicated to the history of transport, industry and communications. The first band of the concert on the 12 July was the Kairos 4tet, an outstanding English jazz band attracting attention with the experimental dimension it adapts to the classical roots of jazz. In the concert, which included a wide selection of songs from the three albums of the band’s discography, members of the Kairos 4tet dedicated their song The 99 to the Gezi Resistance. Bojan Z, who took the stage afterwards and played songs ranging from Balkan jazz to the sounds of rock, also sent a salute to the Gezi movement.

One of the highlights of this year’s festival was the concert entitled “Teatime At The Savoy” (pictured above left) by the Deutsche Philharmonie Merck featuring the acclaimed Turkish pianist Kerem Görsev. The concept of the show was to blend classical tunes with jazz and vice versa, opening up horizons that were entertaining as much as surprising. The conductor Wolfgang Heinzel’s jokes were in great harmony with the atmosphere of the concert, where it was possible to hear a jazzy version of Mozart’s The Marriage Of Figaro or a symphonic version of We Will Rock You from Queen.

On 18 July, Lena Chamamyan, a singer of moving songs combining jazz and classical Armenian music, took the stage in the yard of the Yıldız Palace. The historical atmosphere called for reminiscences of Ottoman history’s shameful encounters with its Armenian population at the concert of this Syrian Armenian musician whose family had to leave the Anatolian land in 1915. In an unforgettable manner she dedicated a song to the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink who was assassinated in 2007, as well as another to the tree lovers of İstanbul, i.e. the activists of the Gezi movement, and one to Damascus and Halep. In this bittersweet concert, Chamamyan was accompanied by host pianist Tuluğ Tırpan and one of the best cellists in Turkey, Özer Arkun, as well as renowned kanun player Göksel Baktagir.

The festival, which also included concerts by Bob James & David Sanborn, Antony Strong, China Moses, Anat Cohen Quartet, Stefano Bollani & Hamilton De Holanda Duo, Chano Dominguez (pictured), Matthias Eick, Ola Onabule and Gregoire Maret, closed on the 29 July with a performance from John Legend. At the concert Legend received great applause for favourites such as Everybody Knows, Dancing In The Dark and Again and indulged his fans with a soul version of The Doors’ Light My Fire as the festival closed with the rhythms of soul and R&B, just the way it was opened.

İstanbul Jazz Festival, accepted as one of the leading jazz festivals in Europe, and one of the first members of the International Jazz Festivals Organizations (IJFO), left two decades behind as this year’s festival came to its end. The soul of the Gezi Resistance, underscoring the vibrancy and dynamism of the young population of the country and its hope for a better future, gave an extraordinary spark to the festival in its 20th birthday. Let’s hope that in the coming years the festival will grow even bigger in a much more democratic and liberal political and social atmosphere in Turkey and in the world.

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