In time… Gilad Atzmon and Sarp Maden – a creative partnership

By John Shakespeare Dyson | February 29, 2020

February 20: I made my second foray into the Touché jazz club, located in the bowels of the Zorlu Center in Zincirlikuyu. The occasion was that of another concert by Gilad Atzmon, the Israeli saxophonist I'd seen in January 2019 – when he was accompanied by Sarp Maden on guitar, Ercüment Orkut on piano, Eylem Pelit on bass guitar and Derin Bayhan on drums. The only one of these four to reappear for this second concert was Sarp Maden. This time the Atzmon / Maden duo was accompanied by Alper Yılmaz on bass guitar and Volkan Öktem on drums.

Arriving on the appropriate floor of the Zorlu Center, I saw a long queue had formed, and wondered if Touché – which I knew to be a small (sorry, ‘intimate’) space – could possibly accommodate so many people. But being British, I stiffened my upper lip and joined the queue, mentally preparing myself for being turned away. It was entirely coincidental that after 15 minutes of happy queuing (boredom like a mountain stream – just let it wash over you; so refreshing!) I noticed a desk by a door to my right and tentatively enquired of the girls who were womanning it (no sexist language here) if this door might perhaps be the entrance to Touché. To my surprise it was, and I was shown into the club, where I found the music had already begun. The queue turned out to have been for another event in another space. But far from feeling I had wasted my time, I felt morally purified by the voluntarily undertaken penance.

Taking my seat in front of the bar, I settled down to enjoy another exposure to the Atzmon / Maden creative partnership. The distance between my chair and the bar counter was approximately two feet, and I must register appreciation of the fact that all the waiters negotiated this space with expertise, never once bumping into me or spilling the contents of their trays over my bald patch. Looking around, I was glad to see that the place still had the glittery décor I had noticed on my previous visit. I find this space, with its side alcoves and its low ceiling divided into internally lit squares (producing a Chinese-lantern effect), an attractive one. My glass of Merlot was extremely reasonably priced, too. The number I had interrupted by my late arrival was a slow piece, and at the end of it Gilad Atzmon made one of those periodic comments that add so much to the entertainment value of his performances. ‘In Turkey,’ he said, ‘you like everything to be in order.’

Well, it's true – Turkish jazz clubs are dressy places. I confess I pay more attention to the condition of my shoe leather when I go to jazz concerts than I do when classical music is on the menu. On one occasion Juini Booth, a double-bass player from New York who was about to play at Babylon, asked me to lend him my black shirt and white tie as he had not been prepared for the sartorial requirements of the Istanbul jazz mileu.

Gilad Atzmon introduced the second piece on the programme, entitled Gaza Mon Amour, with the following words: ‘It expresses my admiration and love for the Palestinian people.’ There were more statements in this vein later on, but as the focus of this blog is the music people make rather than the opinions they hold, I will confine myself to recording just one of them. Gaza Mon Amour was a considerably tougher number than the first one, and it called forth some iron-in-the-soul metallic chords and predatory swoopings – like those of the somewhat unwholesome birds that aid and abet the attack on Minas Tirith by Sauron’s minions in The Lord of the Rings – from Sarp Maden. (His name means ‘precipitous metal’, by the way.) Moaning high notes are one of his trademarks, and he threw up a good many multicoloured baubles (chock-full of nourishing strychnine) during the course of the piece.

Gilad Atzmon, meanwhile, when not belting it out nineteen to the dozen, went over to stand in front of Volkan Öktem, the drummer, who was demonstrating his skills, which are amazing. Outsiders appreciate the quality of Turkey’s most outstanding jazz musicians (of whom Volkan is one), even if the audience for jazz in Turkey is so limited that although virtuosity of the top-notch variety is freely available, it is known only to the very few.

The third item, Just One More Prayer for Peace, was prefaced by a remark from Gilad Atzmon that the audience found highly amusing: ‘Some people think the title is a reference to my prostate issues.’ Though he had initially described it as ‘a ballad to cool you down’, it turned out to be an energetic and fast-moving number in which bass guitarist Alper Yılmaz impressed with some agile finger-picking. Here, for the first time, Gilad Atzmon let rip with a high-pitched solo on the clarinet for which he had exchanged his saxophone. With this item he seemed at last to have truly got into the spirit of the thing.

Then followed a slow piece rather like a traditional Turkish ağıt (lament) but hyped up with reverb. I particularly enjoyed the leisurely upward clarinet glissando; this was followed by a nice long bass solo – the first from Alper Yılmaz in this concert – with vestigial guitar accompaniment. Gilad Atzmon’s laid-back musings and meanderings put me in mind of the clarinettist Acker Bilk, who played the theme song for Stranger On the Shore, a BBC series of the early 1960s that I am old enough to remember. For those who can withstand a generous helping of schmaltz, here is a link:

The next number was a piece in 6/8 time whose name I cannot recall, but which featured a fortissimo drum solo from Volkan Öktem – and a dark, deep and smoky guitar episode from Sarp Maden, enriched (as always) with Scorpionic edge. During the course of it Gilad Atzmon made some weird hand gestures (pointing up, pointing down) which no doubt meant something to him, though nothing at all to me. No problem: I do not insist on overtly comprehensible meaning in a jazz concert. Maybe he just felt like it.
The piece that followed, The Burning Bush (a reference to a certain US politician, I believe) was an epic extended tune with an unusual time signature that would be described in Turkish as aksak – the 7/8 time so familiar to Turkish ears being but one example of this phenomenon. It was an urgent, intense piece that morphed into triple time and then blossomed into a fantastic drum solo from the formidable Volkan Öktem that fully demonstrated his mastery of cross-rhythms – a real treat. Gilad Atzmon withdrew to a corner of the stage to watch, and lap up, the action. I cannot blame him: it was a superlative exhibition. Of the last two numbers, the first was in belly-dance rhythm. It began with a mournful clarinet solo that showed Gilad Atzmon to be completely familiar with this Eastern Mediterranean genre – after all, he grew up in Israel – and was punctuated by the incisive, atonal chords that are one of Sarp Maden’s many hallmarks. Composers of ‘modern music’ take note, and imitate if you are able! (Though I bet you won’t be able to notate them, or reproduce those weird glissandi.) The last number was a rendition of What a Wonderful World in the key of B flat. Before it, Gilad Atzmon made a full and frank confession, to the first part of which (but not the second) I can give my full assent: ‘What an incredible band!’ he said. ‘I tried to keep up with them.’ Modesty, perhaps, but not entirely accurate: I doubt if the speedometer on his instrument can have registered anything short of 500 miles per hour.
In concluding, I can only express the hope that he will be back in Istanbul soon, and leave you to enjoy two of his performances. In the first, he is playing Gaza Mon Amour with Sarp Maden on guitar, Frank Harrison on piano, Yaron Stavi on double bass and Chris Higginbottom on drums. Gilad’s initially moody, then frenetic solo begins at 03:07; this is followed at 07:03 by Sarp’s pain-racked flourishes – which ascend into excoriating, angst-ridden heights from 08:54 onwards:
In the second, Gilad and Sarp are playing with Matt Hall on double bass, Derin Bayhan on drums and the incredibly gifted Genco Arı on piano. I can say without any doubt whatever that Genco is one of Turkey’s most outstanding musicians. Scroll on to 09:00 (where his hangin’ free solo starts) in order to miss some initial infelicities of saxophone intonation; there is more toothsome tootling from Genco at 15:13:
Lastly, I feel duty bound to record that the Zorlu Center PSM is about to embark on a jazz (and other things) festival. It begins on April 30, continues throughout May and June, and ends on July 5. Here is a link.
Posted in Music & Performing Arts, - Jazz, - Musical Shares
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