İlhan Erşahin is undoubtedly one of the most prominent talents of contemporary jazz music.
The creative and prolific saxophonist who likes merging different musical elements with the endless possibilities of jazz comes up with new sounds in each of his projects, receiving praise in music circles.
Erşahin now has two occasions to celebrate. The first is the 10th year of Nublu, the jazz club he owns in New York City. The second is the Turkish release of “Night Rider,” his second studio album, with İstanbul Sessions -- one the prolific musician’s numerous projects -- in which he teams up with Alp Ersönmez on bass, Turgut Alp Bekoğlu on drums and İzzel Kızıl on percussion.
In “Night Rider,” launched Thursday night with a party at İstanbul’s Babylon club, Erşahin depicts through his music the “rhythm of İstanbul nights.”
“It has been four years since I founded İstanbul Sessions,” Erşahin told Sunday’s Zaman in an interview this week in İstanbul, amid preparations for the Turkish launch of the album. “I was invited to perform at a party and I accepted. I knew my friends from this project at that time and I said, ‘Why don’t we give it a try and perform together?’ We played for three hours at the party, mostly improvising. Then we continued to perform together on different occasions and the first album came to life after a while.”
While “Night Rider” reflects Erşahin’s composition skills, it also showcases the improvisational skills of all the members of the project. The songs on the album were made solely for this ensemble. “I do not write music and then have it performed by different bands,” Erşahin said.
Described by renowned French trumpeter Erik Truffaz as what it would sound like “if Radiohead were to make jazz,” “Night Rider” is an album with very familiar sounds for a Turkish listener; listening to it, people can feel as though they were actually wandering around the streets of İstanbul.
“It is jazz, the instruments are jazz instruments, but the forms in the music have some elements from … Turkish culture. In other words, there are some Turkish colors in this album. There is darbuka and some melodies reminiscent of Turkish makams. You can feel it when you listen to it,” he said.
After all, Erşahin is not a musician who likes to classify music in genres with strict borders: “For me, there is only music itself. I do not [care] whether it’s jazz, rock or instrumental; it’s just music. Moreover, the word jazz is such a huge concept that it spans a period from the 1920s to the present day. So, what I want is to let our music tell us about our lives in a natural way. Let the music reflect the way we are in real life.”
This perhaps is the reason why Erşahin has created numerous projects -- including Wax Poetic, Love Trio and Wonderland -- and why each one of these have their own unique style. “The fact that all these projects have different styles and sounds is surprising even for me,” said Erşahin. “I think it may be because I like music so much and I listen to very different genres and musicians. Every musician has a style and all of them have a different place for me in the projects, I feel as though they fit exactly into the particular project they are in, but not into the others.”
The amount of time Erşahin and his band mates spent recording the album is unbelievably short. “We recorded the album in three days,” said Erşahin. “This is how we work. It’s both because I work with very skilled musicians and also that we don’t make pop music. We take a couple of [rehearsals] and then begin to perform in the studio. It’s like a live gig, but we perform it in the studio, not at a concert hall. So, there’s no editing or anything else.”
The album has just been released in the United States. Following its Turkish release this week, “Night Rider” will hit music stores in Europe too, but that is currently planned for September.
Besides the release of “Night Rider,” Erşahin has an intense program scheduled for this year, with three more albums in the works, in addition to his always busy concert schedule. “In April we will go to Brazil and perform concerts there for one week,” Erşahin said. “But for a broader tour, we are waiting for it [“Night Rider”] to be released in Europe, so [the tour] may be around October or November,” he said.
Apart from that, an album Erşahin made with Wonderland is complete as well and that will also be launched in September. Another album with Wax Poetic is complete and it will be launched simultaneously in the US and Turkey in September. With Love Trio he prepared the repertoire for an upcoming album on which they will work with Arto Tunçboyacıyan, and Erşahin expects to begin recording that CD in May. “It may also be launched around November,” he added.
A jazz club without a sign
In addition to recordings and live performances, Erşahin is currently preparing to launch the İstanbul branch of his NYC jazz club for those who want to listen to Erşahin’s music live but cannot go to Manhattan.
Nublu İstanbul will be located in a recently built hotel in the Karaköy district. “We are currently awaiting authorization [from the municipality in order to open the club]. Hopefully we will open it by April 1. There will be live music every day -- jazz, world music and even some Turkish music,” Erşahin said.
Recounting how Nublu became the famous jazz club it is, Erşahin said it just evolved by itself in time from an ordinary café into the brand name it currently is.
“Ten years ago, I was performing as a saxophonist with various bands,” Erşahin recalled. “I was playing at different [clubs], I was quite well-connected and we were already making good music, but I always had to deal with different venues. In time I began to get kind of bored with this intense mobility, so the idea of opening my own club was born during those times. I wanted to open my own place and play my own music there. It all began as a café at a small place and we began to perform as the Love Trio there. The first three months [business] was quite bad. Then a friend of mine told me that he wanted to play at my club. Then another friend came, and he played, too. Then, step by step, the venue began to transform into a jazz club.”
Nublu never made an explosive effect on the NYC jazz scene, but the club gained a steady -- and always changing -- audience in time, which was actually a situation Erşahin preferred more that a huge but passing hype. “Nublu advanced step by step,” said Erşahin, adding: “We didn’t even make any advertisements. We wanted it to be heard of through word of mouth. There isn’t even a sign outside the venue because only people who know about it come to our club.”
As for Nublu’s audience, Erşahin said he likes variety: “The audience changes and grows all the time. After all, Manhattan is a place where huge numbers of people come and go, and thus the profile of Nublu’s audience is very different. Sometimes French and Italians are dominant, sometimes they are mostly Turks, sometimes Americans; it always changes. You can see any type of person from any age group there. That’s one of the reasons I like Nublu so much. It does not address only one segment of the society. You can see people from 20-year-olds to 85-year-olds.”
While Nublu has increasingly become associated with high-quality music, Erşahin decided that it should be made more permanent and thus founded the record company of the same name: “I already had several groups at that time and various groups were playing at Nublu. So we founded Nublu Records in 2005.”
For Erşahin, the main aim of a club should be sharing good music, with audiences and other musicians alike, which is something he wishes to realize at Nublu İstanbul, too. “My only criteria are good music, good musicians and good people,” Erşahin said. “I don’t want to have only this or that kind of music performed at my club. But the music should be good, the audience should be of good quality and, accordingly, it should be a nice ambiance for sharing good music. I never had the aim of making more money [through Nublu]. What I really want to do is to offer opportunities for young [musicians] to both perform live and meet with other musicians.” Erşahin believes young acts should be given multiple chances to show their talents; instead of one-off appearances, they should play several gigs for a certain period of time, “once or twice a week for a month or two,” so that they get to showcase their real talent.
Erşahin says Nublu will be no ordinary jazz club: “People go to such places when musicians or bands they like are playing there. But I want people come to Nublu only because they want to be there. Because people will know that they will be hearing good music whenever they come to Nublu.”