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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Got them Istanbul Blues

Konstrukt ‎– Live at Tarcento Jazz (Holidays Records, 2015) ****

Konstrukt & William Parker ‎– Live at NHKM (Holidays Records, 2015) ***½

By Colin Green

Istanbul lies on the Bosphorus, -- the strait that links the Aegean and the Black Sea –historically, the boundary between Europe and the East with Istanbul the meeting place of two cultures. Musically, there are links between East and West that go deeper however, and to appreciate this one must look further West than Europe, to America and the blues.

If you’ve ever listened to traditional middle-eastern music and thought it had a slightly bluesy feel you’d be right, but in a sense it’s the other way round, and not a coincidence. By way of background to this review, I thought it might be interesting to join some musical dots – with illustrations taken from YouTube – so if you’ve got time, follow them through. It’s not necessary for the purpose of the review however, so you don’t have to listen to them in their entirety, and skip them altogether if you’d rather check your email. I’ve also provided links to a number of occasionally shaky videos of Konstrukt’s performances, some of which can be found on their albums, though in significantly better sound.

The blues has its musical (rather than social) roots in certain features of Eastern music – which for current purposes includes parts of Africa – that were used by plantation slaves in their work songs and other music making, such as a fondness for flattened thirds, fifths and sevenths (the “blue notes”). But it’s not just certain shared harmonic features: there’s a common vocal technique known as melisma – moving rapidly between two or more notes on the same syllable – as well as sliding between notes for expressive effect, which can be traced back to the piquant harmonies of Byzantine Chant and can still be heard in Turkish-Hungarian folk music. Melisma was a powerful expressive device in the baroque period, particularly in the music of Monteverdi, possibly reflecting the strong cultural links between Venice and Constantinople. It’s also an instrumental technique on wind instruments – the sound snake charmers make in old movies (real footage is rather scary) – and sliding and trills (a very fast melisma) are also features of string instruments.

Indeed, some have suggested that there’s a common musical ancestry that accounts for the more than passing resemblance between the chant of the Muslim calls to prayer and vocal phrasings in blues and gospel music, such as the Levee Camp Holler and the inspirational singing of Mahalia Jackson. You can hear sliding between notes, as well as melisma in voice, harmonica and guitar in Levee Camp Moan by the great Son House (who claimed to have taught Robert Johnson to play guitar).
These and other associations between African music and the blues have been known for some time (Alan Lomax’s The Land Where the Blues Began is well worth watching) and have cropped up in some unlikely places. On a break between Led Zeppelin tours, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page visited Morocco, whose influence can be heard clearly on Zeppelin’s Kashmir (Zeppelin were always more of a blues band – the tail end of the British Blues Boom – rather than metal merchants). Some years later Plant and Page returned in less bombastic mood (and with less visible chest hair) and recorded with local musicians: note Plant’s subtle use of melisma in City Don’t Cry.

And of course, the harmonic and rhythmic framework of jazz is derived from the blues, even for many free jazzers. It remains central to the work of William Parker and the circle of New York based musicians with whom he plays – the “jazz licks” that Peter Kowald admitted he’d never learned to play in Europe. Peter Brötzmann, who grew up listening to the early jazz men, makes extensive use of melisma and his playing is soaked in the blues, which is probably one of the reasons he describes himself as a bit of a traditionalist.

All of which is a rather roundabout way of getting to Konstrukt, a group of Turkish musicians based in Istanbul, whose music is a pungent mix of free jazz, scraps of the blues, and traditional music, criss-crossing seamlessly between these genres by virtue of some of the common denominators mentioned above, but never sounding self-conscious or derivative. They had a flexible membership until a few years ago when they settled into the quartet of Korhan Futacı (reeds and woodwind), Umut Çağlar (keyboards, electric guitar, woodwind) Korhan Argüden (drums) and Özün Usta (double bass; but he also plays a mean electric bass as can be seen when Konstrukt plus three guests were firing on all cylinders at the Istanbul Ekspres festival in 2013). Stef reviewed Bulut (Sagittarius A-Star, 2014) – Konstrukt’s first vinyl release – as part of a three LP set of Turkish Free Music, but it’s also available separately.

The Holidays Records website describes Konstrukt’s music as “Cosmic-Turkish free jazz” and on Discogs both albums are listed inter alia, as “Space-Age”. Such terms normally conjure up the musical equivalent of Plan 9 from Outer Space, but in this case I think they’re a reference to other elements that make up Konstrukt’s very individual style.  There’s the sound of Miles Davis’ electric period: echo effects and music that seems to float, with no clear beginning, middle or end but which, when it gets funky (one of music’s great cul-de-sacs) can easily become static – locked in a groove – and slip into a jam session and directionless noodling. (Miles and his producer, Teo Macero, solved this problem by splicing together the best bits, sometimes reusing sections, which is one reason why Miles’ studio albums of the period are generally preferable to his live performances.) Unsurprisingly, this aspect of Konstrukt’s music is most apparent when Çağlar uses the swirling clouds of an electric piano, as in their performance at Nickelsdorf last year

There’s also the influence of Sun Ra, both in the open ended structures and Çağlar’s b-movie electric organ and micro-moog, which have a distinctive timbre reminiscent of the slightly cheesy keyboards favoured by Sun Ra (and as noted by Stef, early Soft Machine). Perhaps it’s no surprise that Konstrukt have had successful collaborations with Marshall Allen -- leader of the Arkestra since Sun Ra’s death – who continues this tradition with the Casio pocket organ and EVI (an electronic wind instrument). He can be heard on Vibrations Of The Day (Holiday Records, 2014 - the CD is Re:Konstrukt, 2011) and on side 2 of Live At Sant'Anna Arresi Jazz Festival (8mm Records, 2014), from which: Toprak.

This confluence of musical cultures and colours, as well as free jazz flexibility, makes for an immediately recognisable style: a carpet of sounds woven from many strands, which when it hits its stride – like Turkish coffee – can set the pulse racing. The stylistic references can be specific – as when members of the band create a chattering melisma on zurnas (a Turkish double reed instrument) – and multifaceted, as at the beginning of their performance at the Tarcento Jazz Festival where Futacı plays a melody on tenor that could have come from Congo Square in New Orleans or a market square in Turkey, set against Çağlar’s gutsy electric guitar.

The Italian label’s website describes Live at Tarcento Jazz as a “multi-channel recording” which “captures their whole performance”. Obviously, the LP has been mixed down into the usual two channels (and very nicely too) but it’s not the whole performance. As can be seen in the footage below, Konstrukt’s set lasted about an hour, and the LP is about 45 minutes. It seems that apart from a minute or so of tuning at the start the missing 15 minutes occurs when flipping the record over, and I suspect this is not due to editing à la Miles but the simple fact that it’s impossible to squeeze 30 minutes of music onto each side of an LP without a deterioration in sound quality.

As Stef mentioned in his review of Bulut, at times there’s a chaotic feel to the music, as if everything might fall apart, but this contributes to its raw and edgy feel. Things are usually kept together by Argüden’s beautifully fluid drumming, a lightweight sound reminiscent of not only the best jazz drumming but the subtle inflections of Eastern percussion. Transitions can also be a problem when playing a continuous set, and they’re often handled by a change of pace after a solo, such as Usta’s carefully sculpted figures on double bass. Futacı is also impressive on tenor: a full-bodied sound, sometimes skipping and dancing around phrases, other times building tension by stretching out to create interlocking phrases with Çağlar’s guitar or keyboards. When he plays alto, it takes on a definite Ornette-like tinge (another great bluesman, who also made an important visit to Morocco) to the extent of even producing what sounds like a quote. 

Good as Konstrukt’s performances can be, one feels that their music really takes wing when collaborating with others. In addition to Marshall Allen, they’ve played with Peter Brötzmann on Dolunay, (Re:Konstrukt, 2011) and Eklisia Sunday (Not Two Records, 2013), Evan Parker on Live At Akbank Jazz Festival (Re:Konstrukt, 2011) and Joe McPhee on Babylon (Roaratorio, 2014) – one of my albums of the year (from which: Involution). In January they performed with Akira Sakata and are due to re-join forces with both Brötzmann and McPhee at the end of March.

Live at NHKM is a meeting with William Parker in Istanbul last September.  Being a bass player, it’s initially unsurprising that Parker is less prominent on this date than other guests on saxophone. Usta’s bass is on the left and Parker on the right, with Usta introducing proceedings playing glissandi and melismas, invoking the vocal techniques mentioned above. As matters progress Parker (always a team player) contents himself with repeated figures contributing to a group sound combining dreamy flute and gurgling moog. Notwithstanding a couple of short solos, and odd touches of colour – glassy arco under Futacı’s whistle breaths – it eventually feels as if Parker is working on the periphery. Both basses tend to be drowned out by distortion-laden guitar and gloopy keyboard swoops and echoes. There are some fine moments, such as the whirl of zurna, tenor and drums, but it doesn’t seem as if anyone has given too much thought to how Konstrukt might adjust their sound to give Parker greater breathing space and allow for new areas to be opened up. His most significant contribution is not on bass but with a gralla – a Spanish double-reed – which he picks up towards the end of the performance to join Futacı’s soprano for a rousing finale, supported by Argüden’s nimble drums and elongated power chords from Çağlar. Stirring stuff, but there remains a sense that a performance that looked so appealing on paper was actually something of a missed opportunity, and that a second meeting might produce a greater contribution from Parker and new challenges for the band, something they clearly relish on the evidence of their other collaborations.

It was recently announced that Argüden and Usta have left the band, being replaced by Barlos Tan Özemek on bass and Berke Can Özcan / Cem Tan on drums. It will be interesting to see how they fare with a new rhythm section.

Both albums are vinyl only and limited to 200 copies each. They can be purchased from the Holidays Records website, and the set with Parker from InstantJazz.

Here’s the whole of Konstrukt’s set from Tarcento (the annoying audience chatter is absent from the album):

And the last six minutes from NHKM with William Parker (again, the album has a richness of sound and dynamic range only hinted at here):


Martin Schray said...

Like all your reviews this one is again very insightful and informative, Colin. I like the links that provide further information and your remarks on melisma, especially Adurehim Heyit sounds very interesting. I am looking forward to listen kONSTRUKT's collaboration with Akira Sakata. For those who will be able to see them at the Babylon in Istanbul on March, 31st with Brötzmann and McPhee - don't miss them.

Colin Green said...

Thanks Martin, much appreciated. You'll be relieved to hear that my next review will be more modest in scope.

Colin Green said...

At the time I wrote this review I was unaware of Stefan’s earlier review of Live At Sant'Anna Arresi Jazz Festival:

It contains a lot of useful stuff, including a discussion of the influence of Miles and Sun Ra.

Apologies for having overlooked it.