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International Jazz Day Brings A Worldwide A-List To Turkey

Istanbul hosts high-profile event in its second year

James Genus, Branford Marsalis, Imer Demirer and John McLaughlin, International Jazz Day, Istanbul, 2013

There is, it seems, one thing that the nations of the world can agree upon: jazz. When the second annual International Jazz Day took place on April 30, nearly all of the 195 member states of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)-from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe-held events to rejoice in the music that, according to a speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “speaks for life.”

The son of Dr. King, Martin Luther King III, referenced that speech in his own at this year’s flagship International Jazz Day event, an all-star concert and goodwill celebration staged at the Hagia Irene, the first church erected in what is today Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey. Begun in the fourth century, Hagia Irene is a cavernous, breathtakingly imposing structure that is often utilized for live music presentations. As a setting for promoting and presenting contemporary jazz, it proved a brilliant-if at times sonically lacking-choice.

King, along with Herbie Hancock, a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and Chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, one of the co-sponsors of IJD, was in Istanbul to promote this music as a force of global unity. So too were dozens of musicians, 40 of whom, from 15 countries, performed at Hagia Irene on the evening of the 30th, their music streamed to millions around the world.

That concert was the main course but it was also a culmination. In the days preceding it, jazz professionals, political and business dignitaries, musicians, media and educators from around the world blanketed the city, presenting workshops, lectures, Q&As and more. On the morning of the 30th, at the Galatasaray High School, attentive, appreciative students took in an intimate performance featuring Hancock and Wayne Shorter sitting in with Monk Institute students. In virtually every other country, from Rwanda to Malaysia to Poland, concerts, lectures, film screenings and other events boosted the profile of jazz for at least part of one 24-hour period.

Like last year’s maiden IJD evening concert, which took place at the U.N. building in New York City, the 2013 event was strong on star power. You couldn’t help but be dazzled by a roll call featuring Hancock and Shorter, T.S. Monk (who serves as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Monk Institute), Esperanza Spalding, Hugh Masekela, Marcus Miller, Jean-Luc Ponty, George Duke, Branford Marsalis, John McLaughlin, Terence Blanchard, Anat Cohen, Dianne Reeves, Ramsey Lewis, Milton Nascimento, Eddie Palmieri, Al Jarreau, Vinnie Colaiuta, Ben Williams, Terri Lyne Carrington, Robert Glasper, Rubén Blades, Keiko Matsui, Lee Ritenour, Zakir Hussain and others, including players from Russia (saxophonist Igor Butman, trombonist Alevtina Polyakova), Cuba (percussionist Pedrito Martinez), Australia (Dale Barlow) and, of course, Turkey (the marvelous trumpeter İmer Demirer, guitarist Bilal Karaman, clarinetist Hüsnü Şenlendirici), a country whose relationship with jazz stretches back to at least the 1930s.

As is often the case at such multi-artist events, some pairings were more inspired than others; a handful stood out, others underwhelmed. Some artists played on a single tune and were gone; others returned several times. The sound, unfortunately, was frequently problematic: Although the vocalists could be heard clearly, the rhythm sections were often lost in the mix or given to murk. In the end, though, that didn’t matter: It was understood that this wasn’t so much about delivering flawlessness as it was about the revelry.

In that spirit, the first performance of the evening was devoted to the blues roots of jazz, with guitarist Joe Louis Walker, pianists Lewis and John Beasley (the evening’s musical director), bassist James Genus, drummer Colaiuta and British vocalist Joss Stone delivering a soulful if somewhat shrill “Some Kind of Wonderful.” The first true highlight arrived via Jarreau, whose vocalese turn on a medley of the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five” and-this being Istanbul-“Blue Rondo à la Turk,” accompanied by Duke, Miller, Ritenour and Carrington, was riveting. (Make no mistake-this evening was geared toward the mainstream, not the music’s fringes.)

Other highlights included an over-the-top, floor-shaking Masekela performance of “Stimela (Coal Train),” featuring Beasley, Carrington, Hancock, Miller and Ritenour; a beguiling, stirring unnamed Latin jam spotlighting Palmieri, Cohen, Blanchard, Luques Curtis (bass) and Pedrito Martinez (percussion); and, perhaps the prize of the night, the trio of McLaughlin (electric guitar), Hussain (tablas) and Ponty (violin) taking their time to explore the nuances of “Lotus Feet,” an oft-revisited McLaughlin composition dating from the 1970s.

An all-cast finale, a take on Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” where Reeves improvised lyrics referencing International Jazz Day, may have been cacophonous, but it sure was fun to watch. Afterward, the audience had barely filed out the doors when the speculation regarding the possible locale of next year’s IJD began. Just the thought that it could be anywhere in the world-anywhere-was in itself a statement on how monumental this event has already become in two years.

As T.S. Monk said at a reception prior to the concert, “The foundations of jazz are not based in musical technique, they’re based in a philosophy that goes to the issue of humanity, communication, tolerance, teamwork, individuality. Those are things that are important to people everywhere and have been important to people since the beginning of time.”

Originally Published